S I S T E R I C A L
By Tom Wachunas
Oh my flabby abs! Be still, my Philly soul! If I have one complaint about the current Players Guild Theatre production of Sister Act, it’s that I split a gut laughing so much, all the while stinging my hands from so many spontaneous outbursts of applause. I hereby charge director Jonathan Tisevich, choreographer and co-director Michael Lawrence Akers, music director and conductor Steve Parsons and his orchestra, scenic designer Joshua Erichsen, lighting and sound designer Scott Sutton, costume designer Stephen Ostertag, the entire cast, and crew, with first-degree felonious exuberance. Yikes. Who do they think they are, Broadway professionals?
And well they should. This business of the Players Guild mounting sprawling stage musicals with crazygreat local talent continues to be a very good habit in these parts. Nun but the best, I always say. Bless me Father, for I have punned.
Based on the 1992 film comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg (and debuting on Broadway in 2011), the setting is 1977 Philadelphia, and tells the story of a vivacious night club entertainer and rising disco diva named Deloris Van Cartier, “as in Cartier’s,” says the sassy singer with a snap of her fingers. After she inadvertently witnesses bad-guy club owner, Curtis, commit a murder, she needs to enter protective custody and hide. “You mean I gotta go incognegro?” she wryly asks Eddie, the timid cop who harbors romantic feelings for her. He promptly whisks her away to the unlikeliest of places - Queen of Angels Church and convent. There, life will fast become raucously… unconventional for her and newfound sisters, initially much to the dismay of the righteous Mother Superior.
Mother, however, begrudgingly finds a way for Deloris, disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, to temporarily fit into the community by letting her sing with the choir. When the eager Deloris asks if the sisters sing well, the weary Mother replies simply, “There are no words.” Indeed, when we first encounter this apparently tone-deaf ensemble, we hear arguably the scariest aural cacophony to ever grace a stage. Hey, it requires great skill to sound this horrific. But Deloris dutifully transforms the group into a veritable choral phenomenon that can regale us with heavenly harmonies, as in the song “Bless Our Show,” as well as execute electrifying disco dance gyrations in the show-stopping “Raise Your Voice.”
Speaking of a vocal phenomenon, watching Joy Ellis in her role of Deloris is to be immersed in a marvelously radiant presence. She is eminently gifted with a very refined technical prowess along with a finessed and invigorating emotive power. In her facile joining of those aspects, her fervor becomes infectious, generating all the dimensionality of, appropriately enough, a spiritual experience.
The show is consistently enriched by many remarkable passages. Among them, Meg Hopp, as Mother Superior, is a genuinely gripping character throughout, and no more so than when, with urgent warmth, she intones her frustrations in “I Haven’t Got A Prayer.” Likewise, playing the sweetly nervous postulant Sister Mary Robert, Sarah Marie Young is riveting and robust when she questions her decision to be a nun in “The Life I Never Led.” Julie Connair, as Sister Mary Patrick, leads her giddy cohorts in the hilariously biting “It’s Good To Be A Nun,” and is otherwise all bubbly mirth when she’s on stage.
Both Demetrius Rodriguez as Eddie, and Willis Gordon as Curtis, smoothly render sinewy shades of classic Soul and R&B music. Rodriguez’s ballad, “I Could Be That Guy,” is utterly heartrending. Curtis’s “When I Find My Baby” is a chilling study in malicious intent. Meanwhile, Curtis sends his trio of inept thugs - played to the hilt by Micah Harvey as Joey, Brandon Talbert as TJ, and Russell Jones as Pablo - to find and eliminate Deloris. Their schmaltzy, fumbling postures as would-be seducers in “Lady In The Long Black Dress” is itself a piece of comedic genius.
If ever there was a benevolent Players Guild conspiracy to rattle our funny bones, warm our hearts with unfettered glee, and brightly illuminate the astonishing abundance of serious theatrical and musical talent in our own back yard, this is it. Here’s to wondrously raised voices and spreading the love around. I rest my case.
SISTER ACT, at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / THROUGH MARCH 12 / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday / Tickets $27 adult, $24 seniors 55 and older, $19 ages 17 and younger / Available at www.playersguildtheatre.com or call box office at 330- 454- 8172
PHOTOS, by Michael Akers, from top: 1. Joy Ellis as Sister Clarence, leading the choir / 2. Joy Ellis as Deloris Van Cartier / 3. Meg Hopp as Mother Superior / 4. Sarah Marie Young (left) as Sister Mary Robert, with Joy Ellis