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BWW REVIEW: NSMT Presents Joyful SISTER ACT

Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Glenn Slater; book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner; additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane; directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill; scenic design, Nate Bertone; costume design, Jeff Hendry; lighting design, Richard Latta; sound design, Leon Rothenberg; costume coordinator, Paula Peasley-Ninestein; wig and hair design, Gerard Kelly; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; vocal and incidental music arrangements, Michael Kosarin; music director, Andrew Bryan

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Jeannette Bayardelle, Deloris Van Cartier; Mary Claire King, Michelle; Wonu Ogunfowora, Tina; Jonathan Kirkland, Curtis Jackson; Brent Bateman, Joey; Nikko Kimzin, Pablo; Avionce Hoyles, TJ; Nick Cirillo, Ernie, Joey Finnochio; Kyle Robert Carter, Eddie Souther; Patrick Clanton, Cop; Ellen Peterson, Hooker, Sister Mary Theresa; Ellen Harvey, Mother Superior; Richard Pruitt, Monsignor O'Hara; Lael Van Keuren, Sister Mary Robert; Jennie Boone, Sister Mary Patrick; Tina Johnson, Sister Mary Lazarus; Tara Tagliaferro, Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours; Victoria Huston-Elem, Waitress

Performances and Tickets:

Now through November 15, North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, Mass.; tickets priced from $54-$79, available online at www.nsmt.org or by calling the Box Office at 978-232-7200

Even though Whoopi Goldberg was the lead producer of SISTER ACT on Broadway, the "Divine Musical" raising the roof at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. is not the SISTER ACT of Whoopi Goldberg's 1992 hit movie. Yes, the sassy attitude and jubilant spirit of the nightclub singer taking involuntary refuge in a cloistered convent are still intact, but the revised book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and original score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater make this jaunty screen-to-stage adaptation an all new joy to behold.

The time is the 1970s when the Motown sound is king. Aspiring disco and R&B singer Deloris "like the diamond" Van Cartier (powerhouse singer and actress Jeannette Bayardelle) is being handled - in more ways than one - by her nightclub manager and boyfriend Curtis Jackson (a suitably slimy Jonathan Kirkland). When Deloris unfortunately witnesses Curtis murder one of his "associates" she runs to the police who promptly put her into protective custody: as a nun, in a convent. There she butts heads with the Mother Superior (a likably old-school Ellen Harvey) who tries to keep Deloris out of trouble by assigning her to lead the nuns' choir. Lo and behold, Deloris transforms the ragtag group of low-key off-key singers into a rollicking high-profile chorus worthy of hallelujahs. Long-lapsed parishioners return to the pews in droves, and the influx of new donations to the collection box save the church from financial ruin. Unfortunately, the choir's newfound fame and fortune puts Deloris' cover in jeopardy, setting off a hilarious chain of events that literally pits good against evil.

Director/choreographer Kevin P. Hill sets the perfect feel-good tone to this affectionately irreverent mash-up of disco and divinity. He guides his terrific cast of streetwise brothers and innocent sisters through 15 delectable songs that juxtapose wry lyrics against sometimes heartfelt and even inspirational melodies. Bayardelle's pulsating "Take Me to Heaven" works as both a sexy Supremes-like nightclub number and a rousing gospel prayer. "It's Good to Be a Nun" is the cloistered sisters' song of gratitude tinged with a sly edge of winking complaint. Kirkland does his very best Barry White impression while crooning "When I Find My Baby," a song that sounds all warm and dreamy until, well, it's not.

Curtis' henchmen get in on the act, too, with the hilarious R&B-inflected "Lady in the Long Black Dress." Here Joey (Brent Bateman), Pablo (Nikko Kimzin) and TJ (Avionce Hoyles) try to outdo each other in a contest to see which one can seduce the Mother Superior into giving up Deloris. Their riff on The Temptations, complete with doo wop dance moves, stops the show.

In the end, though, SISTER ACT belongs to Deloris and the nuns. Bayardelle is a dynamo with equal parts thrilling voice and comic snap. Harvey is a perfect mix of stern leadership, dry sarcasm, and abiding faith. Jennie Boone as the exceedingly jovial Sister Mary Patrick and Tina Johnson as the slightly dotty rehearsal pianist and former choirmaster Sister Mary Lazarus add delightful buoyancy, especially in the ensemble numbers "Raise Your Voice," "Sunday Morning Fever" and "Bless Our Show." As the shy young Sister Mary Robert, the novitiate who has spent her entire life within cloistered walls, Lael Van Keuren has a power belt as big as her heart. When she finally unleashes her previously subdued instrument in her breakout solo "The Life I Never Led," she sets both her spirit and her beautiful voice free.

Sets are minimal given NSMT's theater-in-the-round, but designer Nate Bertone makes very clever use of the hydraulic lift in the center of the stage. Scenes seamlessly morph between convent interiors and the nightclub stage, with Richard Latta's lighting helping to define locales even further. Costumes coordinated by Paula Peasley-Ninestein root the action firmly in the period, but many of the outfits (rented from Maine State Music Theatre) are bulky and ill fitting.

Once again NSMT has done an admirable job with its orchestra and sound design. The 12-piece band is as good as any from the Motown studio recording era, and the balance between voices and instruments allows every word and lyric to be heard.

SISTER ACT ends its run November 15. Why not let it take you to musical theater heaven?

PHOTOS BY PAUL LYDEN: Ellen Harvey as Mother Superior and Jeannette Bayardelle as Deloris Van Cartier; Jeannette Bayardelle, Mary Claire King as Michelle and Wonu Ogunfowora as Tina; the cast of SISTER ACT; Brent Bateman as Joey, Jonathan Kirkland as Curtis Jackson, Nikko Kimzin as Pablo and Avionce Hoyles as TJ; Tina Johnson as Sister Mary Lazarus, Jeannette Bayardelle and Jennie Boone as Sister Mary Patrick



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