OREM — Given the title, it’s not surprising which sex shines in the current production of Sister Act at the SCERA. And the women do shine, from the opening firebomb to the finale ensemble explosion. The thin story and the general blandness of the male actors is more than compensated for by big voices from the females, sometimes emanating from surprisingly petite bodies.
The story in Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner‘s script is quickly told: In Philadelphia, star-struck Deloris Van Cartier (played by Becca Rose), witnesses a murder committed by her gangster boyfriend and manager (played by James Murphy). Police detective Eddie (played by Kyle Baugh) hides her out in a convent, where she gives the Mother Superior (played by Enola Breanne Schow) fits, transforms the choir and all its members, and saves the convent from demolition. Inevitably the Sisters in turn save their new sister, showing their compassion for her previous hard-boiled life. Along the way the clever lyrics (by Glenn Slater) and the Steinkellners’ dialogue poke gentle fun at religious dogmatism, and draw the sting from urban gangsterism.
The plot is either so well-known (because of the hit 1992 film the play is based on) or predictable that audiences don’t need to pay much attention to the actual story. In this case, director David Paul Smith gets the job done, though with no major surprises. The sets, designed by Shawn Mortensen, are minimal, with a stained glass backdrop to tell the audiences that the characters are in the sanctuary and a graffiti-covered wall to tell the audience when the characters are not—regardless of wherever we actually are. The costumes work well enough, as designed by Kelsey Seaver, though the women’s are better (and easier – mostly black and white) than the men’s.
But that’s all pretty much beside the point. Rose is the point, and she delivers all one could want as the moll on the run. Big girl, big heart, big voice. She is matched by Schow and by Rebecca Soelberg as the postulant Sister Mary Robert. Each of these women produces show-stopping moments, sometimes of plaintive beauty, sometimes of raucous song-worship, and sometimes both. The convent choir helps there, perhaps too well, making me wonder why such accomplished singers need the help of a brassy gun moll.
Why? To transform the sound, of course. And as the sisters emerge from their shells and get down with it, the sound of Alan Menken‘s score is transformed. But enough remains to provide great contrast, and with the help of music director Delayne Bluth Dayton, remind me, as Duke Ellington said, “if it sounds good, it is good.” Mortensen is also the choreographer, and he has provided the minimum in footwork but the maximum in hand-jive, which is from first to last exciting, at more than one point bringing down the house.
With all the excellence of the ensemble, perhaps Shannon Follette deserves a paragraph to herself. As Sister Mary Lazarus, the choir director displaced by Deloris, she was impossible to ignore. Maybe it’s just because she wore glasses, but her infectious energy in every ensemble number. What a performance! But really just indicative of all the nuns. (And I’ll sneak in Marlene Arnold here, playing Sister Mary Theresa, whose acrobatic splits were truly mind-boggling.)
Sister Act started as a Whoopi Goldberg movie, was adapted for the stage in London’s West End, and jumped the Atlantic in roughly the form SCERA gives it to Utah audiences today. It shares the religious-secular conflicts of Nunsense and The Book of Mormon, but is perhaps the most satisfying on the musical front. SCERA has done it proud here.
Content advisory: people get shot, and there’s lots of talk about killing, but it’s pretty anodyne, and unlikely to upset the modern five-year-old. But the show ends at almost 10 PM.
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