Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Like the film, the plot of the musical follows lounge singer Deloris van Cartier, a strong woman whose dream of becoming a big singing star is sidelined when she accidentally witnesses her gangster boyfriend Curtis kill a man. On the run, Deloris discovers her old high school friend Eddie is now a cop and he believes cloistering Deloris away at a local convent is the best way to hider her, as it would be the last place Curtis would look for her. However, the stern and set in her ways Mother Superior is forced by the Monsignor to take Deloris in, since the police have given the church a large donation, and she wants little to do with Deloris, whose brash style goes against her strict beliefs. She also thinks that Deloris is a danger to the other nuns due to her being a witness to a murder. To add to the Mother Superior's problems, the church has very few parishioners and the Monsignor informs her it's about to be sold. When Mother Superior discovers Deloris has incorporated some of her lounge moves and songs into the church choir, she wishes Delores was gone.
While the plot is somewhat predictable, and makes a few changes from the movie screenplay, including moving the time period and location from 1990s San Francisco to 1970s Philadelphia, the book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material from Douglas Carter Beane, features fleshed-out main characters and dialogue that is honest and sincere. There are also many funny lines and situations. The score, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, features a wide range of fun musical styles from the '70s, including pop, disco, Motown and funk. Menken's music includes many toe-tapping tunes and Slater's lyrics are humorous and witty. However, while there are many infectious, crowd-pleasing numbers, a few of the songs are just average.
Director and choreographer Stephen Casey keeps the show moving along at a brisk pace and ensures his gifted cast land every joke in the script. He also adds plenty of fun period touches throughout, including incorporating '70s dance steps into his choreography, and his leads create realistic individuals, though he downplays the dramatic tension of Curtis and his mafia henchmen so their characters come across more as bumbling idiots and their hijinks don't ever resemble any type of a serious threat. That lack of tension makes the ending slightly less effective, though it still has enough of an emotional impact to resonate.
Fortunately, ABT's cast features two exceptional leads, with Khadijah Rolle as Deloris and Lisa Franklin as the Mother Superior. Rolle is a firecracker of energy and exuberance as the headstrong Deloris who won't let anything get in the way of her dream of becoming a big star, including witnessing a murder. Rolle has a singing voice that soars, especially on her big ballads, and she beautifully depicts the realization Deloris has that she doesn't have any true friends or family except the nuns at the church, including Mother Superior, who have become her surrogate family. Even though she's hidden under a wimple and habit for the entire show, Franklin's expressive facial and hand gestures and perfectly paced pauses get big laughs and beautifully display the character's stern disposition and disapproval of Deloris. Her singing voice is rich and lovely and infuses her solos with depth and meaning.
As Eddie, Justin Parker is charming and has fun on his big solo "I Could Be that Guy." Trisha Hart Ditsworth, Domeneque Claude, and Kathi Osborne are perfectly lovable and hilarious as three very different sisters at the convent. Ditsworth's exceptional singing voice delivers on one of the score's best songs, "The Life I Never Led," and she beautifully depicts the quiet and shy young postulate Sister Mary Robert who isn't quite sure if this is her calling. Claude is a bundle of energy as the always optimistic and joyful Sister Mary Patrick while Osborne is stern and sarcastic, with perfect comic delivery, as Sister Mary Lazarus, the convent's current choir director who, at first, feels somewhat threatened by Deloris.
The rest of cast and ensemble are fairly good, with Matravius Avent somewhat imposing as Curtis, and Matthew Mello, Alan Gonzalez, and LaRon Lee Hudson adding pops of humor as his henchmen. Also, the female ensemble who play the nuns create unique characters and deliver some impressive vocals in their group choral numbers.
Jim Hunter's scenic design incorporates stained glass panels and elements that beautifully depict the convent setting along with a few large set pieces to portray various locales. While the majority of John Paul White's costumes are the habits the nuns wear, there are many fun, colorful surprises as well as many period elements. The lighting design by Daniel J. Anteau does very well in portraying the shadow-filled, dark rooms at the convent. Music director Nathaniel Beliveau derives lush harmonies from the cast and a beautifully sound from the orchestra.
While the plot of Sister Act is somewhat predictable, the many upbeat tunes, witty dialogue, and comical and endearing characters make this show extremely enjoyable. With impressive leads, rich creative elements, and fun choreography, Arizona Broadway Theatre's production makes for a rewarding, rousing and crowd-pleasing good time.
Sister Act, through August 24, 2019, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623-776-8400.
Direction and Choreography: Stephen Casey
* Appears courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers