Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sister Act
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Night Alive


Photo is Norah Long and Regina Marie Williams
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Sister Act is a terrific musical and Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is giving it a polished production that emphasizes its entertainment value, with abundant laughs, great performances, a tuneful score played by a crack orchestra, and crystal clear direction that draws in the audience and never loses momentum. The show is based on the popular 1992 movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith, and Chanhassen has the good fortune—or casting brilliance—to fill those roles with two of the Twin Cities finest actors, Regina Marie Williams and Norah Long. Though the Broadway touring production came through a few years ago, this is the first locally produced version of the show in this area.

In Philadelphia, 1978, Delores Van Cartier, a semi-talented wannabe diva, is auditioning to perform at the nightclub run by Curtis, her gangster boyfriend. Curtis has been stringing Delores along and she has had her fill of it, when she accidentally walks in on him killing one of his associates. She manages to get to the police and report the murder to Lieutenant Eddie Souther. Eddie remembers that he and Delores went to the same high school—though she was "Doris" then—and that he harbored a deep crush on her. She remembers him, too, as the ungainly "Sweaty Eddie." To protect his star witness, Eddie comes up with a safe haven where Curtis will never find her—a convent!

The Mother Superior is aghast at housing Delores, in her micro-length gold lamé dress and thigh-high boots, but agrees as an act of charity, provided Delores abides by convent rules. When Delores' instincts get her and some of her fellow "sisters" into trouble, Mother Superior gives Delores the task of working with the convent's choir, a miserable assembly of croaking off-key voices. This turns out to be, pardon the expression, a match made in heaven. Delores' talents blossom as she coaches these untrained singers and arranges soaring soul music to replace the dreary hymns in their repertoire. She also develops real friendships with the Sisters and draws worshipers back to the failing parish. Meanwhile, Curtis and his henchmen are searching for Delores, and Eddie's crush on her has rekindled. In the end Delores must choose between thinking about #1, herself, or standing by her new-found sisterhood. Can you guess?

Even if the end is not very hard to predict, the road there is tremendous fun. The book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, additional text by Douglas Carter Beane, adheres closely to the movie and is peopled by characters in funny situations speaking funny lines but acting in believably human ways. The crux of conflict is between Delores and Mother Superior. Both are struggling to do the best they can based on the lens through which they have lived life. Both characters go through a process of change that falls within the realm of belief, making the show all the more heartfelt and satisfying.

Rather than create a jukebox musical using soul standards, as the movie did, Alan Menken and Glenn Slater composed a rousing original score for Sister Act. If it is not a score for the ages, it is tuneful and witty throughout, with songs that reflect and reveal characters. Highlights include Delores' declaration of her self-worth, "Fabulous, Baby!," two rousing numbers by the re-born choir, "Raise Your Voice" and "Sunday Morning Fever," Curtis' sinister resolve to rein in Delores ("When I Find My Baby"), the sweetly melodic "Here Within These Walls," which reveals Mother Superior's ideals, and "The Life I Never Led," as the young postulate, Sister Mary Robert, considers choices outside of convent life.

To top it off, this production's success is nailed by the two major talents cast in the key roles. Regina Marie Williams' Delores is a nonstop dynamo. Appearing at first in a dress that is too flashy, too skimpy, pointing out the expiration date on her hopes of making the big time in showbiz—or love—she summons the confidence to persevere, and her transition into a nun's habit actually seems to liberate her ability to be her best self, rather than striving to be someone other than herself. That Williams—one of the most consistently superb actresses on Twin Cities' stages—finds depth and truth in this character is no surprise, and neither is the fact that her soaring voice makes every song she sings a knock-out. Added to this, Sister Act gives her a chance to be truly funny, and she seems to be having a ball as the flamboyant Delores. Norah Long brings her beautiful soprano to the role of Mother Superior, and she gives the role just the right dose of starch. Long convincingly shows Mother Superior's rigidity to be not mean-spirited, but born from genuine concern for the Sisters in her care.

Three of the nuns are developed as featured characters, each given strong performances. The delightfully exuberant Therese Walth plays Sister Mary Patrick, for whom taking vows does not mean any less zest for life. Seri Johnson etches a flinty Sister Mary Lazarus, the no-nonsense wise-cracker who unleashes her inner boogie. Most especially, Britta Ollmann impresses as the naïve Sister Mary Robert, who sheds her timidity and blooms into a woman of substance in the show-stopping "The Life I Never Led."

The male characters are less well developed, but Reginald D. Haney makes a strong showing as Eddie, the affable police lieutenant whose connection with Delores prompts his own transformation. Andre Shoals, as Delores' gangster boyfriend Curtis, doesn't come across as cut throat as the part is written, but he handles his big musical spot "When I Find My Baby" with style. Keith Rice, a mainstay of many Chanhassen productions, pushes Monsignor O'Hara over the top, fully embracing the increased spiritual life—and cash flow—Delores brings to his parish.

There are several smoothly choreographed small ensemble dance numbers—Delores and her back-up singers, Curtis and his henchmen—but the real story in terms of movement are the fantastic, high energy numbers performed by the nuns. They borrow from various Broadway-style clichés, embellishing them with a joyful mix of innocence and energy. This is done completely in good taste, bringing the assembly of nuns to vibrant life without cutting away their dignity.

Tech credits are strong throughout, with simple but serviceable sets framed by an array of church windows with colored glass inlays. The costumes play on the show's humor. The traditional nuns' habits in act one become increasingly flashy as their performances become more widely heralded. Curtis and his gang sport garish attire that lampoons the fashion-impaired 1970s.

I had a wonderful time watching Sister Act, and it seemed like most everyone else in the Chanhassen playhouse did too. It does not in any way take the art of musical theater to a new level, but it is an excellent example of the form in all its entertainment glory. For those who are tired of musicals with humor based on cynicism and irony, Sister Act is refreshingly good-hearted and—if you can tolerate one blood-less gang killing and a few skimpy costumes—could even be called wholesome. Praiseworthy work!

Sister Act continues through February 26, 2016, at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen, MN. Tickets including dinner and show: $64.00- $85.00. Show-only tickets: $49.00 - $70.00. Check website for senior and student discounts. For tickets call 952-934-1525, toll-free 1-800-362-3515, or go to www.chanhassendt.com.

Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Glenn Slater; Book: Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner; Additional Book Material: Douglas Carter Beane; Director: Michael Brandisi; Choreographer: Tamara Kangas Erickson; Music Director: Richard Long; Set Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger; Sound Designer: Russ Haynes; Wig Design: Susan Magnuson; Production Stage Manager: Katie Hawkinson; Orchestrations: Doug Besterman; Vocal and Incidental Music Arrangements: Michael Kosarin.

Cast: Mathias Anderson (Joey), Tommy Benson (Cop), Reginald D. Haney (Lt. Eddie Souther), Roland Hawkins (Ernie), Timmy Hays (Michelle), Daniel S. Hines (Pablo), Seri Johnson (Sister Mary Lazarus), Mark King (Cab Driver), Timotha Lanae (Tina), Norah Long (Mother Superior), Molly Sue McDonald (Sister Mary Theresa), Kasano Mwanza (TJ), Britta Ollmann (Sister Mary Robert), Teri Parker-Brown (Waitress), Keith Rice (Monsignor O'Hara), Thomas Schumacher (TV Newscaster), Rudolph Searles III (Drag Queen), Andre Shoals (Curtis), Emily Rose Skinner (Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours), Therese Walth (Sister Mary Patrick), Regina Marie Williams (Delores Van Cartier).

Ensemble: Tommy Benson, Serena Brook, Leslie Brown, Timmy Hays , Mark King, Timotha Lanae, Kendra McMillan, Teri Parker-Brown, Laura Rudolph, Thomas Schumacher, Rudolph Searles III, Alyssa Seifert


- Arthur Dorman


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