BWW Review: Chaffin's Barn Re-opens With Habit-Forming SISTER ACT
Nashville's iconic Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre is back and better than ever! After some six months - and 50 or more years since its debut - the newly renovated and gorgeously appointed Chaffin's Barn has reopened with a rousing production of Sister Act, the habit-forming musical that played to sold-out audiences last summer.
Much of the 2018 cast returns for this year's version of the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater-Bill and Cheri Steinkellner musical romp - including Meggan Utech as Deloris Van Cartier, the aspiring pop star masquerading as a nun to escape the clutches of the murderous Curtis and his merry band of mischief-making thugs, and Chaffin's Barn artistic director (and Nashville's musical theater doyenne) Martha Wilkinson as the no-nonsense mother superior who rides herd on the sisters who provide the musical its very name - and, thanks to the thrill of opening night and the unveiling of the stunning revamp of the venue itself, they deliver the goods in a manner that ensures audiences will continue to show their support for the Barn in its 52nd season and, more importantly, for many years to come.
There are no real surprises in the new iteration of Sister Act (save for the fact that the large cast manages to make the material seem fresh and engaging after multiple viewings of the show from numerous homegrown companies), but the energy of the cast and Wilkinson's direction guarantee a fast-paced production that benefits from the company's decision to move its curtain ahead by 30 minutes (shows start at 7:30 p.m. now, instead of the 8 p.m. curtain time that was the rule for 51 seasons).
The focus and commitment of Wilkinson's talented cast is apparent from the very first scene, never once flagging for the two-and-a-half hours of playing time during which Deloris and her cohorts cavort about the magical floating stage at Chaffin's (yep, the stage once again descends from the flyspace above to the delight of audiences) to bring the farfetched, if immensely entertaining, story to life. Based on the 1992 film that starred Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith.
Utech has never been better, no has she ever seemed so self-assured, as she transforms from mild-mannered actress into the larger-than-life Deloris and the only slightly less fabulous Sister Mary Clarence (that veil and wimple makes even the most outlandish girl seem downright conservative), delivering her lines with ease and displaying a deft hand at comedy that makes even the most groan-worthy lines land with precise impact. But it is her musical performance, along with heartfelt dramatic moments, that elevate Utech's performance to dizzying heights: She is powerful and vulnerable at the very same instance, latching on to the collective heart of the audience with confidence.
Utech's show-opening performance of "Take Me To Heaven" - which features her backup singers Tina and Michelle, played by Christina Candilora and Jenny Norris - provides the ideal introduction to the tale of Deloris, sounding for all the world as if it could be a Top 40 hit from the late '70s. Showy and rather decadent, in the way of all disco-era hits, it's charmingly cheeky and endlessly entertaining. Utech's rendition of the show's title tune, "Sister Act," is sweetly evocative in a way that might be unexpected given the over-the-top feel of the rest of the score.
As the flinty Mother Superior, Wilkinson shows off her own estimable musical theatre bona fides and gives yet another master class in the mechanics of good musical comedy with another laudable performance, while showing off her own glorious singing voice to perfection. No one knows there way around a musical theater contrivance better than Wilkinson and, after 30 years on the Chaffin's Barn stage, her star remains undimmed, her presence undiminished. She is Nashville's music theater star.
Intelligently, Wilkinson surround Utech and herself with a commendable ensemble of performers who match their intensity throughout the show. Devin Bowles returns in the role of the nefarious Curtis, Deloris' sometimes married, sometimes attentive lover/bad guy Curtis and, in the process, shows off his own command of the stage with a portrayal that proves him the ideal match for his leading lady. David Ridley, who's had quite the year for himself in Nashville theater (earning critical and audience raves in such diverse productions as The Threepenny Opera and Pippin, both at Street Theatre Company), shows a light comic touch as the perspiring cop Eddie Souther, who nurses a longtime crush on the perhaps unattainable Deloris.
Maggie Richardson, an alumna of the Belmont University musical theatre program, claims her own time in the spotlight as the young postulant Mary Robert, perfectly capturing the character's naivete while showing off her considerable musical theater chops in the process, giving a stellar performance of "The Life I Never Led." Vicki White is delightful as Sister Mary Lazarus, Angela Madaline-Johnson goes for the laughs as Sister Mary-of-Tours, and Jenny Wallace gives a thoroughly convincing reading as the very much older Sister Mary Theresa (Wallace's commitment to her character is enormously entertaining - be sure to pay attention). The always watchable David Arnold returns as the easily won-over Monsignor O'Hara, who quickly becomes a convert to Sister Mary Clarence's brand of churchiness.
But once again, as in last year's production (which was originally directed by Bradley Moore), it's the engaging trio of henchmen - the three bumbling wiseguys who do Curtis' larcenous bidding - who very nearly steal the show out from under everyone else in the ensemble.
Gerald Oliver as TJ, Curtis Reed as Joey and Everett Tarlton as Pablo virtually stop the show every time they have the chance with a blend of zany humor, self-assured musicality and an unbridled sense of theatrical bon homie to the total delight of the audience. Their "Lady In the Long Black Dress" is a musical theater tour-de-force during which each man stakes his claim to showbiz immortality (at least until his next show-stopping role).
Tarlton's spirited choreography blends disco-era dance with musical theater showmanship that keeps the action moving at a terrific pace, while leaving the audience breathless as they witness it. Musical director Kelsi Fulton and her band (Chris Smallwood, Steve Haan and Dan Kozlowski) provide the musical accompaniment that distinguishes Sister Act from its many Barn predecessors.
Rebecca Jarrett and Alyssa Johnson's costumes clothe the actors with theatrical elan and Austin Olive's lighting design artfully illuminates the proceedings. Kudos to audio technician Stephen Platea whose craftsmanship produces a best-ever sound design for a Barn production.
Sister Act. Book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Directed by Martha Wilkinson. Musical direction by Kelsi Fulton. Choreography by Everett Tarlton. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville. Through August 25. For reservations, call (615) 646-9977 or go to www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com for further details. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).