Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Sister Act
Raleigh Little Theatre
Review by Garrett Southerland

The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Areon Mobasher Photography
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of musical comedy? Nuns, right? Stay with me: From Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music to the more contemporary Off-Broadway cult favorite Nunsense and its various sequels, nuns have fared pretty well on the musical stage, showcasing both their serious piety and their potential for ironic comedy. In 1992 the nun-centric film Sister Act, starring Whoopi Goldberg, was a box-office hit, and about fifteen years later it inspired a musical stage adaptation, currently in an impressive production by Raleigh Little Theatre, playing at the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre through September 9.

With music and lyrics by Disney alumni Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, the musical follows Deloris (powerhouse Tyanna West), a so-so singer with high aspirations. After witnessing a murder by her lover Curtis (a talented JaJuan Cofield), Deloris is taken into protective custody by the police and hidden in a local convent (the show is set in Philadelphia). She is welcomed reluctantly by the stoic Mother Superior (a delightful Alison Lawrence), who agrees to the placement as long as Deloris keeps a low profile, viewing this as an opportunity to win a wayward soul for God. But keeping a low profile is not Deloris's style, and in short order she is injecting her street-smart perspective into the daily life of these nuns. Some of them embrace her "progressive" ideas, but Deloris unexpectedly finds her true calling when she transforms the tone-deaf choir into a mass-stopper that even Pope John Paul II would want to hear.

The book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane, does not stray far from the plot of the film, with a screenplay by Joseph Howard. The musical does introduce a love interest with Eddie the cop, and a group of Three Stooges wannabes in the form of three bumbling henchmen for Curtis, not particularly necessary for the story, but entertaining nonetheless.

Mr. Menken and Mr. Slater's score shifts from the Motown-influenced movie soundtrack to a blend of disco-era Philly soul. Though this is not the most memorable of Menken's scores, he does hit a homerun with the ballad "The Life I Never Led," sung by meek novice Sister Mary Robert (the heartbreakingly lovely Averi Zimmerman), who yearns to experience things that she has thus far denied herself; this is one of Menken's best songs in recent memory. A key strength of the score lies in Mr. Slater's witty lyrics, which enliven "When I Find My Baby," a love song with a sadistic twist delivered by Curtis as he hunts for Deloris, and "I Could Be That Guy" sung by Eddie the cop (a silver-voiced Benaiah Barnes), who dreams of being the hero Deloris needs.

Directed and choreographed by Nancy Rich, the production flows well, with just slight hiccups in pre-recorded sound queues and an awkwardly staged chase scene near the end. Musical direction by Michael Santangelo is of high quality, delivering the score with a richness that enlivens even secondary moments. Scenic design by Thomas Mauney makes remarkable use of a stage whose size limitations are obvious, working in some great '70s references in the process. Elizabeth Grimes Droessler's lighting fills in some scenic gaps and helps with transitions from more somber scenes to energetic ones—disco balls are a godsend! Costumes by Raleigh Little Theatre favorite Vicki Olson capture the time period perfectly, though her best work here is the glittering rework she gives to the nuns' habits in the second act.

The star power on hand is not to be questioned, from the leads well into the supporting roles. Tyanna West as Deloris is a standout not only for her superb singing voice but even more so for her acting. She makes this character her own, never trying to mimic Whoopi, and extracting comedy from nearly everything she does. As Mother Superior, Alison Lawrence wins with every sarcastic look and comment, and she has a lovely soprano voice to boot. Kimberly Genna Bryant's Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy's character in the film) sparks a smile each time she speaks. Kathy Day is earthy and sardonic as Sister Mary Lazarus, living up to the legacy of the great Mary Wickes, who played the role in the film. And Averi Zimmerman as the young Sister Mary Robert exudes the innocence needed for the role; she takes a ten-thirty number and turns it into the eleven o'clock number of this production.

Benaiah Barnes gets his share of comedic opportunities with Eddie, and his solo in the first act proves not only that he is a soulfully smooth singer, but that knows how to cater to an audience. At the performance I attended, he actually used a minor wardrobe malfunction to his advantage, winning the approval of the audience. Tony Hefner's Monsignor O'Hara is a delight each time he is on stage. TJ (nephew of killer Curtis) would not necessarily be a standout, but Orlando Parker Jr. illuminates this minor role with his own brand of comedy, and he shows off his own capable vocal chords in his section of "Lady in the Long Black Dress." Be prepared to be blown away.

Just because a film does well at the box office does not necessarily mean that it will adapt well for the musical stage. Clearly, though, Sister Act was "called." And anyway, who doesn't love singing and dancing nuns?

Sister Act, through September 9, 2018, at Raleigh Little Theatre, Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh NC. Tickets are $28 for adults, $24 for students/seniors. Tickets can be purchased online at or by phone at 919-821-3111.

Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Book: Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Additional Book Material: Douglas Carter Beane
Based on the Touchstone Pictures Motion Picture written by: Joseph Howard
Director: Nancy Rich
Musical Direction: Michael Santangelo
Choreography: Nancy Rich
Scenic Design: Thomas Mauney
Costume Design: Vicki Olson
Lighting Design: Elizabeth Grime Droessler
Sound Design: Todd Houseknecht

Deloris: Tyanna West
Mother Superior: Alison Lawrence
Sister Mary Robert: Averi Zimmerman
Sister Mary Patrick: Kimberly Genna Bryant
Sister Mary Lazarus: Kathy Day
Sister Mary Martin of Tours: Morrisa Nagel
Sister Mary Theresa: Pam Kadzielawski
Michelle/Nun: Latoya Smith
Tina/Nun: Germona Sharp
Monsignor O'Hara: Tony Hefner
Curtis: JaJuan Cofield
Eddie: Benaiah Barnes
TJ: Orlando Parker Jr.
Joey: Jon Todd
Pablo: Luar Mercado Lopez
Ernie: Del Flack
Ensemble: Elizabeth Anderson, Nicole Bright, Roman Lawrence, Isaiah Lewis, Charles Robson, Heather Shinpaugh, Natalie Turgeon