BWW Reviews: MSMT's SISTER ACT Raises the Rafters in Rejoicing

In the first act of the Menken/Slater/Steinkellner musical comedy, Sister Act, the heroine, Sister Mary Clarence (aka Deloris Van Cartier) tells Mother Superior that song should come from the soul to raise the rafters. Maine State Music Theatre's second season offering does just that with a dazzling production and a cast whose talent is, indeed, cause for celebration!

The 2009 musical based on the 1992 movie fleshes out the story of disco singer Deloris Van Cartier, who hides in a Philadelphia convent to escape her murderous boyfriend and during her stay there transforms and is transformed by the sisters with whom she bonds through the joy of music making. The stage version has a lively score that seamlessly and characterfully blends gospel, disco, and Broadway idioms and a book whose heartwarming message about sisterhood, sharing, acceptance of others, and openness to change makes the audience fall in love with the characters and become invested in their journey.

Director Donna Drake deftly creates a fast moving, funny, poignant landscape of the Philadelphia convent and surrounding underworld. She moves the plot at a breathtaking pace in the first act, slowing it effectively to a more reflective and emotional one in the second. Her choreography (assisted by Rhonda Miller) is vivid, colorful, and energizing, replete with sly humor and witty comedic moments. She plays the chase sequences with a nod to the Keystone Cops and handles the show's gags with a subtlety that lends realistic resonance. Music Director Jason Wetzel, assisted by Samuel Thorne Bagala, leads the nine-person pit band through the complex harmonies of the score with precision and verve and draws outstanding vocal performances from the entire ensemble.

Charles S. Kading (with assistance from Props Designer Kyle Melton) supplies the attractive scenery that masterfully evokes the glitz of Deloris' cabaret, the somber world of the convent, and the shabby environs of South Philadelphia - all with a series of painted flies and flexibly interchangeable rolling units. The large stained glass roundel that dominates the church scenes is a show stopping touch in and of itself. Debuting Costume designer Jeff Hendry (wigs Gerard James Kelly) provides the lavish wardrobe which includes a series of increasingly glittering habits for the nuns and a wide array of ever-changing garb for the ensemble. He even scores his own show stopper in Eddie's fantasy number, "I Could Be That Guy." Lighting Designer Jeffrey Koger works his customary kaleidoscopic magic, while Sound Designer Brett Rothstein - apart from an unfortunate equipment failure in Act II - creates a compelling soundscape.

The cast - both Equity actors and the intern company - is nothing short of spectacular! Kingsley Leggs is an imposing, insinuating, slippery thug, Curtis Jackson, whose "When I Find My Baby" is a wickedly seductive and funny blend of double entendres. Jay McKenzie makes a winningly sweet Eddie Souther, who aspires to a panache that has thus far eluded him. David Girolmo is a delicious Monsignor O'Hare, who slowly transforms from church functionary to hip pastor, raising his deep, rich voice and dancing with evangelical zeal. Nik Alexander gives the dim TJ a wealth of humorous quirks and proves to be an electric dancer. His trio with the other two goons, Jayson Elliott and Brian Maurice Kinnard, "Lady in the Long Black Dress," is a show highlight.

Mary Jo McConnell brings dignity, compassion, subtle humor, and a powerful vocal presence to her majestic portrayal of Mother Superior. Charis Leos is an endearingly ditsy, overly optimistic Sr. Mary Patrick; April Woodall captures Sr. Mary Lazarus' jaded toughness, while Cary Michele Miller convincingly develops the mousy postulant, Sr. Mary Robert, into a brave and outspoken woman with vocal endowments to match. Jillian Jarrett (Sr. Mary Martin of Tours) and Birdie Newman Katz (Sr. Mary Theresa) together with the entire ensemble of singing/dancing nuns are uniformly brilliant, each delineating an individual character.

Supporting roles are colorfully undertaken with fine vocal-dramatic appearances by Wonu Ogunfowara as Michele, Michaela Boissonneault as Tina, and the company ensemble of Chrissy Albanese, Sara Bond, Beth Kirkpatrick, Jillaine McGough, Leah Nicoll, Reagan Danel Ogle, Stefanie Sable, James Spencer Dean, Alec Cohen, Benjamin Henley, Jordan Lipes, and Deangelo Renard deliver a series of charmingly articulated, changing cameos.

But for all the excellence of the company, Sister Act is a show which rides on the shoulders of its leading lady, and in Trista Dollison, MSMT has a sensational star! In her role debut as Deloris, she brings phenomenal vocal and choreographic strength and expressivity, tons of personality, and the ability to make the sassy, naughty, irrepressible yet loveable and loving character her very own. Moreover, Dollison proved herself a theatre professional of the highest caliber, when, on opening night, her microphone went dead just before her arresting second act number, "Sister Act." Not missing a beat, and aided by her supportive colleagues, she continued to sing with passion and poignancy, her operatically trained voice prevailing over the less-than-ideal circumstances. The audience, who had already embraced her and the entire company, responded with delirious acclaim.

Not only does MSMT have another blockbuster hit on its boards, but the company also continues to demonstrate its prominence on the regional scene: in the depth of its talent, the inventiveness of its production values, and the spirit of its ensemble. With Sister Act, MSMT once again has outdone itself. And that is definitely reason to rejoice!

Photos Courtesy MSMT, Roger S. Duncan, photographer

Sister Act runs from June 25-July 11 at the Pickard Theatre, Brunswick, ME. 207-725-8769

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold