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Sister Act
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Monty Python's Spamalot

Dawn L. Troupe, Melissa Costa and Cast
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
Glory hallelujah and amen! Hillbarn Theatre may not have Whoopi Goldberg from the 1992 movie or Patina Miller from the 2009 London and 2011 New York openings, but thank the Almighty, the Foster City company has found its miracle in casting Dawn L. Troupe as Sister Mary Clarence (aka Deloris van Cartier) for its rambunctious, toe-tapping, heavenly Sister Act. With this Sister and the twelve singing and dancing nuns from the Queen of Angels convent backing her up, Hillbarn is almost assured of a nightly packed congregation full of revival-meeting fervor for the run of its Sister Act. Alan Menken filled the musical with tunes of the 1970s sound (Motown, disco, Donna Summers), Glenn Slater provides lyrics righteously irreverent, and Cheri and Bill Steinkellner have ensured a predictable but overall fun book that will leave everyone glowing in radiant smiles.

Second-rate but ambitious lounge singer Deloris van Cartier opens the wrong door at the wrong time as she seeks to thank her gangster boyfriend Curtis Shank for her holiday fur of bright blue, only to witness Curtis and his roughnecks finishing off a stool pigeon with a bullet to the head. An old admirer from high school and now a beat cop, Lt. "Sweaty Eddie" Souther, conceives a plan to hide Deloris (still his secret heartthrob) in an aging, dilapidated convent while awaiting her witness account that can finally convict the low-life Curtis.

To the horror of mini-skirted Deloris in her knee-high purple boots and Afro do a foot in diameter, she is now to be a nun and under the supervision of Mother Superior, who is equally horrified to have this heathen among her innocent flock of both young and aging nuns. (After all, how is Mother to deal with a "sista" who ends her prayer, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Smoke"?) But the convent's nuns themselves turn out to be much more friendly and welcoming of their new sister than Deloris (now Mary Clarence) ever expected—especially when they discover she can sing and has the god-given ability to transform their sad and discordant choir into a rocking, fabulous group of angelic voices suitable for the Pope himself.

And all the time, Curtis and his bumbling thugs search high and low the streets of Philly to make sure Deloris never makes it to that courtroom to testify.

From the moment she lets her deeply rich, contagiously delicious notes float from her smiling mouth surrounded by cheeks that pop with life's zest, we must fully agree with the reluctant praise that bad guy Curtis gives Deloris: "You look good, you move good, you sing good." As her hips swivel and her arms shoot up skyward only to slowly and sexily descend, Dawn L. Troupe convinces us in her opening "Take Me to Heaven" that she is an angel—even if one with some devilish tendencies. Once she dons the heavy, black frocks of a nun, her voice as Sister Mary Clarence takes on even more divine qualities as she ranges from smoky softness to trumpeted volumes in her vocal outpourings. With great comedic abilities, she can also elicit heartfelt inspiration, especially as she teaches the nuns to "Raise Your Voice" in a number that raises the theatre's roof by its end. When Sister Mary Clarence is at one point invaded at midnight by a bunch of nuns in nightgowns and pjs, nervous like teens before their papal performance (imagine the sight of that!), her long-sustained, crystal clear notes in "Bless Our Show" seem sure to be received well by any god listening far above.

But it is in the moments when she is joined by the twelve-nun ensemble that both Sister Mary Clarence and they truly turn into something both celestial and Las Vegas. Each number only seems to get better as they blend in harmonies that shake the timbers and send the audience time and again into thunderous applause. Not only can the twelve to a person individually sing superbly, they collectively execute the fun, funny, and often fantastic choreography of Jim Ambler with zeal and precision and often with tongues fully in cheek and winks galore. There is brilliance and bounce in "It's Good to Be a Nun," Saturday Night Fever-like disco boogying in their "Sunday Morning Fever," and true heavenly joy of raised arms and circling bodies in "Spread the Love Around."

Not only do the nuns perform with ebullience in kick lines, hoedowns, and dance floor jives, they often sparkle individually—especially vocally. Melissa Costa as the always friendly and perky Sister Mary Patrick (a role made forever famous in film by Katy Najimy) sings with clear love and fascination for each living moment in a voice fresh and full. Darlene Batchelder as Sister Mary Lazarus has a cynic side to her comments and looks that could kill (and draw many laughs); she raps in rapid rapture in "Sunday Morning Fever."

But the Nun of the Year award must go to the one still only a young novitiate, Mary Robert (Jessica Maxey). The initially shy, wide-eyed girl who has trouble looking at anyone directly, suddenly lets loose in "Raise Your Voice" to hit high C's with a blast that surprises and delights everyone. She continues in subsequent numbers to excite and grab audience appreciation with a voice that builds with such intensity that there is expectation glasses might shatter. Growing ever in confidence, she gazes ahead looking for new worlds as she sings "The Life I Never Led." Brava to Ms. Maxey for an evening of near-flawless execution in both acting and singing.

As Mother Superior, Beth Anne Wells Viloria is appropriately reserved, reverent, and somewhat overly righteous. In "Here Within These Walls," her maternal voice slightly shakes and rumbles for an effect of setting her apart from the much more daring set of nuns she administers. Her exasperation is clear in "I Haven't Got a Prayer" as breathy phrases describe her frustration with the growing popularity of the nuns' pop music in the sanctuary.

The men of this cast in some ways do not have a prayer when compared to their fellow actors in black gowns, but they do have their own moments. Gary Stanford, Jr. sings with the cockiness of a small-fry crook in "When I Find My Baby," but he is soon over-shadowed by his three sidekicks who serve as a back-up trio with smooth moves of hands and feet and high, close, falsetto-leaning harmonies. Those three (Nick Dale as Pablo, Sam Nachison as Joey, and Sheraj Ragoobeer as TJ) later deliver one of the evening's most-applauded numbers ("Lady in the Long Black Dress") as each steps forward to out-do the previous one's high notes and Motown moves.

Making his own mark in the cast is Jim Ambler as Lt. "Sweaty Eddie" who takes his turn as a nightclub-like lounge singer in "I Could Be That Guy." As he sings on the street corner of his love for Deloris, he is backed up by a chorus of gathered homeless and drunks who turn out to be worthy of a Reno (but maybe not Vegas) stage themselves.

A quick change of costumes by Eddie (enabled by his twirling chorus of street-dwellers) is only one of the many tricks that Valerie Emmi performs with costumes that often smack of their own humor. The lighting design of William Springhorn, Jr. casts many long shadows and intriguing designs on floor and walls and provides its own heavenly halos at just the right moments. While he does not have a live orchestra to direct, Rick Reynolds has done a fine job preparing this entire cast, musically. A missing live band (or at least a piano) is something I personally usually detest in big musicals such as this one, but I must say the recorded score never detracts or seems too much or too little, with credit surely going to Alan Chang as sound designer. Pulling the entire production together with a pace snappy and a bent toward sneaking in laughs even when quickly changing sets is director Bill Starr.

Sister Act is not one of the great musicals of all times, but it is surely one guaranteed to energize almost any audience—particularly those longing for some of the beats and moves of the 1970s. Hillbarn Theatre's production proves again that the company can take a big-stage, Broadway musical and give it an enthusiastic, even electrifying interpretation on its smaller stage—especially when a chorus of talented nuns and a ridiculously gifted, ringer nun have blessed the company with their presence.

Sister Act continues through May 28, 2017, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.