IVINS — Tuacahn presents in its lineup this year the Utah premiere of Sister Act. Going into this show I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had followed some of its progression from the West End to Broadway and knew it was nominated for several Tony awards. However, besides a television performance of the enthusiastic Raise Your Voice, I was coming into Saturday’s performance having not yet been converted to this “Divine Musical Comedy.” Tuacahn’s preaching, though, had me clapping in the pews.
Sister Act is similar to the structure of The Wedding Singer, in that it doesn’t pull anything from the original movie except the story. I’m sorry if anyone was hoping to see the nuns enthusiastically singing two 1960’s classics: Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” or Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” adapted to “My God.” Instead, the story has been dropped into 1970’s Philadelphia. This allows the music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater to pull from the disco and soul of that era, while still reminiscing the adaptations from the original movie. Much of the movie is faithfully converted by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner’s book, with additional material being provided by Douglas Carter Beane. While it has been many years since I last watched the movie, there was very little plot deviance from the story of Doloris Van Cartier’s stumbling upon her boyfriend murdering someone and then ending up in a convent for witness protection till the trial. It isn’t a perfect story, because it takes a while for real conflict to build. Yet, the tone between her, the Mother Superior, and certain nuns, especially the postulate, Sister Mary Roberts and the exuberant, Sister Mary Patrick, transfer well. Newcomers and fans alike will easily jump into this slightly zany story of finding true love in strange places.
The most important thing to know about going to Tuacahn’s Sister Act is that it is not a slow-feeling Sunday service. The run time with intermission was pushing over two and a half hours, but directors Scott S. Anderson and Rommy Sandhu don’t give time to doze. Even though it takes all of Act 1 to get to the nuns first big flashy number, the lead up and the usually filler songs move briskly from one to another while allowing the large cast to build up the right relationships and crack the right jokes. I was especially pleased with the minor character’s solo numbers.
I quickly felt sympathetic for “Sweaty” Eddie’s (Derek Adams) invisible man concerns. He gradually feels the funk in his dream scenario. Soon transients magically let him bust a move into his magically appearing and disappearing white suit and soared to Bee Gee-like falsettos of “I Could Be That Guy.” I initially worried when the mob boss, Curtis’ three lackey’s took the stage for “Lady in a Long Black Dress.” Yet, this trio (Jace Coronado, Spencer Rowe, David Lamarr) had so effectively set up their character quirks that the overly confident posturing, crawling, and strutting in high heel platforms while pretending to seduce nuns comes off as a highlight of the evening. In addition, Curtis (Dwelvan David) was a great cool head among the throngs of hilarity, and used it much to his advantage. His own “When I Find My Baby,” subtly kept you enthralled with it’s dark humor tied to the perfect Barry White impression of a love song.
The wonderful group of nuns culminated in wackiness, especially the main three. Sister Mary Lazarus’ (Cathy Newman) straight man monotone, slyly capped jokes and laid down the tightest raps ever uttered by a nun. Sister Mary Patrick (Joanna Johnson) was delightfully enthusiastic, especially as she leads the enlightening “It’s Good to Be Nun.” I doubled over when she ended up in a bar and chased disco ball lights, pretending to catch a bee. Sister Mary Roberts (Kari Yanci) added something special to the questioning nature of the postulate, trying to decide if the convent is truly her calling. While her break out is expected, she so honestly expresses her internal frustration through “The Life I Never Led.”
“The Life I Never Led,” also let Brit West finally start to show Deloris’ depth. In the first act we really love some of her ostentatious shallowness. Throughout power songs of “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous, Baby” in her tight miniskirt and thigh-high boots she immediately makes the case for her showstopper voice. It really shines in her enthusiasm building and hum worthy “Praise Your Voice.” Yet, in that scene with Sister Mary Robert you start seeing the demeanor of Deloris’ face change. It culminates in her own moment of truth, “Sister Act,” giving just the right touch of meaning and sentiment to an otherwise goofy show.
Sue Goodman’s Mother Superior is the most serious grounding in the show, but also the most refreshing. From the first awkward meeting between Deloris and the Mother Superior, you get her dry sense of wit and a delightful ability to set the joke. Her hopes that a newly arriving woman be “a woman of faith, a woman of temperance, a woman of modesty,” only to see the irreverent, scantily clad Deloris is enough for her to take back her vow of charity – and you believe her.
The set design by Brad Shelton used omnipresent church arches at the back to effectively show active projections of streets, stain glass repairs, and night clubs. An endless array of detailed backdrops wheeled on effortlessly to accent bedrooms or gates, complete with saint sculptures, to really immerse you in the streets of Philly in the seventies – as if the Cadillac driven on stage wasn’t enough.
The costuming by Wilma Mickler provided endless options from glittering nun habits to magically appearing dresses and suits. Combined with the work of hair and makeup design of Matthew Reeves Oliver, the chorus seamlessly converted from nuns and alter boys to transients, to ratted out back-up dancers, and back again without anyone realizing what happened.
A final note on the music direction and choreography – I was surprised and delighted by the choice of music director Alex Harrington; that while the nuns improved under Deloris’ direction, they did not suddenly become the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They maintained a slightly tinny, but still beautiful tone that worked with their earlier voices. Likewise, the choreography by co-director Rommy Sandhu wonderfully incorporated character in situations like the jerky and gliding of transients and the endless prayer hands used in a million ways by the nuns. Both groups executed the steps but especially worked in their characters so that you loved seeing the trepidation of some nuns, or the late beats of the oldest nun.
With some real firework bangs in the finale, this movie adaptation was not strewn by the wayside and forgotten, but has found good earth in Tuacahn’s red rocks and begun to flourish. So, grab your own family, sisters and all, and enjoy three “Hallelujah” cheers for the Utah premiere of Sister Act.