Sister Act Brings Soulful Fun to Orpheum.
In the beginning, Touchstone released a 1992 comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg. And Touchstone saw the profits and they were good . And Touchstone said, "Let there be a sequel," and there was a sequel. And Touchstone called the sequel "Back in the Habit" . . . and so on.
Now, twenty-one years later, the tale of Deloris Van Cartier, aspiring diva thrust into a convent for witness protection has come to the Memphis Orpheum. And this touring cast performs a water-to-wine-level miracle resurrecting a predictable, middle-of-the-road story into a delightfully entertaining show.
The spoken dialogue remains sitcom-level, while Glenn Slater's lyrics are masterfully clever. Alan Menken's energetic tunes, arranged by Doug Besterman, capture the 1978 disco vibe. I believe every musical ought to have one cornerstone song--a musical equivalent to Hamlet's soliloquey. I can't tell whether Menken neglected to write one, or thought he wrote one but didn't. Still, the singers and orchestra are superb.
The first couple of scenes felt slow and deliberate, a bit like riding an old time roller coaster up that first big hill. Once characters were introduced and the improbable premise set, we were off, gaining momentum at every pivotal point. What made the production work so well was that instead of being trapped inside the confines of a hackneyed script, the actors embraced the absurdity and went to town with the farce. Their characterizations were fresh, their timing impeccable, and their unscriptable stage "business" consistently hilarious. Nothing they did felt calculated or "canned." They exuded genuine warmth, ease and respect for the audience. I couldn't help but imagine Director Jerry Zaks at the helm during rehearsals watching his actors find new ways to crack each other up every day. This touring company has that kind of vibe.
Ta'Rea Campbell is naturally possessed of the soulful voice and sinful curves required to play Deloris Van Cartier, but it's the intangible nuances that really make her performance sing. Melvin Abston plays her vengeful, ruthless ex-lover, Curtis Jackson. I loved his seventies machismo, but wouldn't have minded a little more cold-blooded killer intensity.
Hapless Deloris goes from being dominated by Curtis Jackson to being under the thumb of Mother Superior, played in grand style by stately songtstress Lynne Wintersteller. Her two solos, "Here Within These Walls" and "Haven't Got a Prayer" are a beautiful contrast to the upbeat numbers that make up the majority of the show. Wintersteller inhabits the role so naturally it's hard to believe she isn't a nun. Her stern, self-satisfied character was balanced by warm, magnanimous Monsignor O'Hara played by a charming Richard Pruitt.
Chester Gregory brought down the house as Eddie, Deloris underdog high school classmate turned cop. His Walter Mittyeque number, "I Could Be That Guy" which includes a mind boggling quick change into an iconic white disco suit reminiscent of John Travolta, (made complete by his sudden ability to dance) is an all-out showstopper.
Other wonderful characters are timid postulate, Mary Robert played with spot-on conviction by Ashley Moniz, hilariously eccentric Sister Mary Patrick played by Florrie Bagel, and henchmen Joey, Tad Wilson, Pablo, Ernie Pruneda and T.J. Charles Barksdale. Their over-the-top rendition of "Lady in the Long Black Dress" must be seen to be believed.
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