Sisters Act Up And Over The Top In Lively Production of SISTER ACT at Toby's In Columbia

A Feel-Good Musical Takes Toby's Through Autumn 2023

By: Sep. 19, 2023
Sisters Act Up And Over The Top In Lively Production of SISTER ACT at Toby's In Columbia

What’s a feel-good final fling of a show that can bridge the end of summer, the start of the school year and carry us to November, when it’s time for the premier of the holiday spectacle? SISTER ACT, that’s what: whatever the weather, you’ll be welcomed when you enter the climate controlled space of Toby’s to be distracted by a delightfully energetic and entertaining show that is woman-driven, relationship-positive, and frankly, empowering to an oft-marginalized group, religious devotees.

Based on the motion picture “Sister Act” by Joseph Howard, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with contributions by Douglas Carter Beane, serve up a cute story that’s basically an excuse to listen to some excellent vocals. Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (of Disney fame) create music and lyrics specifically for theatrical production, and the songs are great fun, despite the plot being unsophisticated and predictable. “Take Me To Heaven,” “Fabulous, Baby” and “Raise Your Voice” are among my favorites.

Digressing from the movie in many aspects, the stage musical becomes more live-performance friendly by transitioning to Philadelphia in the 70s, which, in addition to allowing Menken to tap into the disco vibe, does not require the big splashy visuals associated with Vegas/Reno. Toby’s Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins manufactures the equivalent of an establishing shot by projecting specific imagery onto multiple video screens set all around the seating area to set the scene. His modular set pieces create different locations both indoors and out, moving quickly, courtesy of the unsung, nearly invisible, stagehands, which are largely silent- with just one scene change that was, comparatively, somewhat noisy.

Director Mark Minnick sets his production up for success with excellent casting choices. Many of the featured characters in SISTER ACT are played by actors who, while in Toby’s regular rotation, are frequently among the ensemble rather than directly in the spotlight. Conversely, several actors whom we often see as leading ladies and men are doing a brilliant job blending into the extra large Ensemble in this production. 

Ashley Johnson-Moore, recently spectacular as Oda Mae Brown in GHOST at Toby’s, makes a believable Deloris Van Cartier, brash and broad, with rising-star presence and sudden vulnerability. Backing up Deloris in the signature number of the show, “Take Me To Heaven,” and again in "Fabulous, Baby," are Asia-Lige Arnold as Michelle and Patricia ‘Pep’ Targete as Tina. They are not only excellent vocalists, they’re engaging performers and I hope to see more of them both.

Gerald Jordan as Eddie Souther brilliantly carries off awkward and bumbling, though I recall him oozing charm as Apollo Creed in ROCKY not too long ago. His character is probably the most genuinely likable personality in the show, and we are rooting for him, particularly during his featured number, “I Could Be That Guy.” 

Playing Mother Superior, Lynn Sharp Spears is stern and judgemental, but not without humor. Her solo, “Haven’t Got A Prayer” is lyrically clever and she delivers it well, while showcasing her resignation to an upsetting arrangement. Valerie Adams Rigsbee as Sister Mary Patrick is irritatingly upbeat and cheerful, physically embodying it as well voicing positive sentiment.

As Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours, Jane C Boyle is confidently loud and contextually inappropriate. Mary Kate Brouillet as Sister Mary Robert takes full advantage of her ability to look fourteen years old in order to create a shy, sheltered character who needs coaxing to realize her potential. Lynn Sigler as Sister Mary Lazarus is lively and fun to watch, and has a cute bit in Act II.

In the role of our main antagonist, Curtis Jackson, Ryan Holmes is a master at melding charm with evil. In his featured number, “When I Find My Baby,” he carries his vocals capably, and his dancing is elegant and smooth. As small-time bad guy Ernie, David James is slimily malevolent. Brian Dauglash, playing Pablo, one of Curtis’s henchmen, sounds excellent speaking Spanish, though the comedy of ethnic stereotypes has long since expired. His hair is terrific; kudos to Wig Designer Janine Sunday. Jordan B. Stocksdale as another goon, Joey, is a hilarious mulleted meathead; playing junior henchman TJ, Anwar Thomas is a delightful doofus. 

Music director Ross Scott Rawlings pulls together ear-pleasing harmonies and creates balance between the skilfull mini-orchestra and the vocalists, which blend to create a depth of joyous musical sound, while he conducts and plays keyboard in a concealed alcove above the stage floor. 

Another standout element of the production is the superior choreography conceived by Director/Choreographer Mark Minnick, beautifully executed by the whole cast. Minnick creates some extremely complicated and fascinating group dance numbers, which are just riveting, as well as fast-paced. The chase sequence in Act II is particularly artful. 

At Toby’s, it’s not just a show, but also dinner. PLENTY of dinner, with variety to satisfy nearly everyone, and includes a pre-dinner salad bar. I cannot report on the Redemption Ratatouille as I’m allergic to both eggplant and tomatoes, but Delores’ Oven-Fried Chicken is nicely seasoned, the Four Cheese Pasta is super cheesy and Mother Superior’s BBQ Ribs are tender and juicy. There are steamed shrimp on the dinner buffet, a pleasant tilapia, plus a carving station. You have a choice of two served desserts, and may also visit the ice cream station. Tonight’s themed cocktail, in a souvenier glass, available either alcoholic or non-, is “The Van Cartier,” a frozen strawberry- lemonade concoction, which is quite refreshing. You can check out the rest of the menu, or examine how Brunch differs from Dinner.

Full disclosure: I covered SISTER ACT elsewhere, several years ago. I remembered nothing at all about it, though I had a vague impression of liking it. It’s neither deep nor meaningful; it is, however, tremendously energetic, and full of songs which I wouldn’t turn off should I hear them on the radio. At the show’s conclusion, a nearby audience member clasped her hands together below her chin and said “Oh my God, that was SO. GOOD. Beautiful voices! That was SO good!” If you’re looking for sassy escapism that’s non-Barbie-adjacent, this is it. It’s upbeat and it’s LIVE. Here are people in your community serving drinks and shaking derrieres with conviction and heart; in short, it’s an exuberant extravaganza of catchy songs, complex dance routines, and enthusiastic cast members raising the roof and bringing down the house for your entertainment pleasure.

Running time: about 2 hours, 45 minutes, including Intermission, which lasts exactly long enough to cycle everyone through the bathrooms and back to their seats.

Covid Precautions: masks are currently encouraged but not required. Be aware that this may change at any moment and you should do two things: check their website, and carry a mask with you always, just in case.  

SISTER ACT  plays at Toby’s in Columbia  through November 5, 2023.  Phone the box office at 410-730-8311 Sunday & Monday, 10 AM-8 PM; Tues- Sat, 10 AM- 9 PM. You can purchase tickets through the Box Office over the phone.

Showtimes: Tuesday through Saturday, doors open at 6 PM, Dinner follows shortly, show at 8 PM. Wednesday and Sunday matinees, doors open at 10:30 AM, Brunch follows, show begins at 12:30 PM. Sunday evenings, doors open at 5 PM for dinner and the show’s at 7:00 PM.

Ticket prices range from $60-85, depending which day you choose and how old you are. Parking is free all around the building, and there’s a drop-off spot for mobility-limited members of your party. 

Photo: Deloris and her Sisters, with Ashley Johnson-Moore as Deloris

Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Final Factoid: Joseph Howard is a pseudonym for Paul Rudnick, who wrote the original screenplay. He evidently didn’t want his name on it following extensive doctoring by several additional writers, including the late and much-lamented Carrie Fisher

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