Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot follows Deloris van Cartier, a lounge singer who aspires to be a big star, who is ready to break up with her boyfriend Curtis, a married man and club owner who also happens to be a gangster. However, when Deloris accidentally witnesses Curtis killing one of his men who he believes has talked to the police, she finds herself being hidden away at a local convent. Her old high school friend Eddie, who is now a cop and still has a crush on Deloris, believes it's the best place for her, as it would be the last place he thinks Curtis would look for her. The convent is about to be sold since they are unable to attract any parishioners and is run by a stern Mother Superior who wants little to do with Deloris but is forced to take her in by the Monsignor, as the police have given the church a large donation to hide her. Deloris and the Mother Superior do not see eye to eye on many things and when Deloris tries to beef up the choir by using many of her lounge moves and songs, the Mother Superior wishes she were gone.
Will Deloris and the Mother Superior get along? Will Curtis and his men find Deloris? Will the church really be sold? And what about Eddiewill he and Deloris become a couple? I think you can guess the answer to all of these questions, but even though the plot is somewhat predictable, the fun dialogue, exuberant songs, and the lovable and endearing characters make this show extremely enjoyable.
Based on the 1992 film of the same name that starred Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris and Maggie Smith as Mother Superior, the musical makes a few changes to the movie plot, including moving the locale from the film's 1990s San Francisco setting to 1970s Philadelphia. In doing so, it pays homage to the fun fashions and music of the '70s, with a score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) that offers a wide range of styles including disco, rock, funk, Motown, and even a little hip hop. A few of the songs are just average, but Slater's lyric rhymes are very funny and several songs cleverly start out one way but turn into something completely different. Even the reprises provide new views on the story and characters. The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane, is honest and sincere without being too predictable and includes many funny lines and parts.
The Hale production stars Ashley Jackson as Deloris and Kathleen Richards as the Mother Superior, and they are both excellent. Jackson infuses Deloris with the wide-eyed exuberance of a woman with a dream of stardom and fame who won't let anything get in her way, not even witnessing a murder. However, as headstrong and sure of herself as Jackson is in her portrayal, she also beautifully portrays the realization that Deloris has that she doesn't have anyone to turn to and how the nuns at the church have quickly become her surrogate family. Jackson has impeccable stage presence and a singing voice that soars. While her role is much less flashy, Richards is equally as good as the Mother Superior who believes God sent Deloris to the convent for a reason. Her stern disposition is perfectly displayed by Richards' skill to say so much with just a simple look, gesture, or a pause. She gets some big laughs and her voice excels on her solos.
Nicholas Hambruch is charming and sweet as Eddie. Greta Perlmutter, Kinsey Peotter, and Heather Fallon are hilarious as three of the sisters at the convent. Perlmutter is Sister Mary Robert, the quiet, shy and naive postulate who doesn't quite know if she's gotten the calling yet, and Perlmutter has a beautiful voice and is given one of the best songs in the show, "The Life I Never Led." Peotter is comically delicious as energetic and spunky Sister Mary Patrick, while Fallon is appropriately bossy as the convent's current choir director Sister Mary Lazarus, who feels somewhat threatened by Deloris. All three have excellent singing voices and create characters who quickly become audience favorites, as does Matthew Harris as the witty Monsignor.
The rest of the ensemble are all very effective. Mac Hawbaker is convincing as the mean and rough Curtis, while Raymond Barcelo, Kyle Webb and Ricco Machado-Torres play several parts that get big laughs. Savannah Alfred and Ayanna Le Andre are perfect as Deloris' backup singers, and each of the female ensemble members who play the nuns provides a unique element in to make them slightly distinguishable from each other.
While Brian Daily's set may be somewhat minimal, due to it being an in-the-round production, his use of grey stone facades over the entrances to the performance space along with a few projections on the walls of stained glass images depict a beautiful sense of the convent setting. Mary Atkinson has designed some fun 1970s period costumes for Deloris and the ensemble, and Jeff A. Davis' lush lighting beautifully evokes the changing moods of the piece. Lincoln Wright's music direction delivers some amazing harmonies from the cast.
Cambrian James' direction infuses the show with a fun period feel and he ensures that the humorous surprises in the script are staged as crowd-pleasing theatrical revelations. While I don't want to give too much away, I'll just say that my favorite is Eddie's song "I Could Be That Guy," which at first seems like a throwaway number but ends up having not one but two great unexpected moments in it. The combination of James' fun choreography and succinct direction, Atkinson's excellent costume design, and Hambruch's winning performance turns the song into a big showstopper.
While the plot of Sister Act isn't that original and one you've seen in many other films and shows, where a person witnesses a crime and has to hide out, disguised, until they can serve as a witness at trial, it still is a rich and rewarding film to musical adaptation. With an excellent cast and witty and inspired direction and choreography, Hale Centre Theatre's production amounts to a fun and funny, toe tapping, crowd pleasing show with a huge heart and big laughs.
Sister Act, through August 18th, 2018, at The Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling 480-497-1181.
Directed and Choreographed by Cambrian James