A couple years ago City Stage leaders Justin Smith and Chiaki Ito walked away from hosting numerous thought-provoking and almost always entertaining theatre productions in Wilmington. Between his numerous restaurants in town and acting schedule, along with her career as a lawyer and a musician, time became a virtue.
“Doing eight shows a year was too much,” Smith says. Though, their love for live theatre never waned. Instead, the scaled back to one show a year at Thalian Hall. They settled on making a new tradition for folks looking to ring in a new year with performance art, alongside cocktails, food and even dancing.
“The New Year’s collaboration with Thalian has been such a success, so we made the easy decision to do that one show while we tended to our lives and enjoyed some time off from the theater,” Smith says. To be clear, it doesn’t mean Ito and Smith—a forceful combination of talent and artistic vision in their company, Cape Fear Theatre Arts (CFTA)—are opposed to doing more in the future. “I think if the right opportunity comes along we will definitely do more,” he tells, “but for now it is a show-by-show basis.”
The production will open on December 30 with the grandiose New Year’s gala taking place Dec. 31, CFTA will debut “Sister Act,” the Whoopi Goldberg-known film, which follows the story of Reno lounge singer Deloris Van Carter. She goes into the witness protection program after seeing her mobster boyfriend kill someone. The program leads her into a convent, wherein she befriends Sister Mary Robert, Sister Mary Lazuras and Sister Mary Patrick.
We interviewed Smith and Ito about the musical, featuring tunes from Tony- and Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Newsies”). Smith directs the show, while Ito will be on keys and conduct her band—Jared Cline (guitar), Christopher Marcellus (bass), Alex Eakins (drums), John Crowley (trumpet), Kennith Watts, Jr. (trombone), Ryan Mulder (reeds), David Walker (reeds), and Sheila Hardison (reeds).
encore (e): Tell me why you chose “Sister Act” as Cape Fear Theatre Arts big year performance?
Justin Smith (JS): Well, every year the same factors come into play. What plays are available? Can we cast it? How much will it cost? Not only were those questions answered with “Sister Act,” but I think its message and entertainment value fit the New Year’s slot better than any of the previous 19 shows we have done.
e: What do you mean, exactly?
JS: I certainly am not trying to make “Sister Act” something it isn’t. No matter your preference, there seems to be something in it for everyone. Big musical numbers, laugh outloud comedy, a love story, good guys, bad guys—murder. Its entertainment value is very high. You can come and barely have to think while enjoying it.
However, in particular after the recent political climate, its message is very powerful and filled with hope. You have a group of people living in different worlds with a different set of standards (in fact an extreme set of standards). Throughout the show you get to see these worlds collide and through thoughtfulness, compassion, friendship and flexibility, you are left with the idea that their worlds weren’t so far apart.
e: Who is playing whom and did you cast them from auditions—or did you have folks in mind for the roles? How is each lead impressing you most currently?
JS: Well it’s a cast of 25! We did have auditions here locally and we accepted tapes from out of town. We had around 60 or so people audition in total, and many of the roles could have been cast three different ways.
Casting is exciting and excruciating all at once. As I mentioned, you always have people in mind for roles but this particular cast had some surprises even to me. Some notable roles are Barbara Mootoo as Deloris. Barbara played Felecia in our production last year, “Memphis.” Paul Teal is playing Sweaty Eddie—a real departure from the norm. [Ed. note: Teal also was in “Memphis” last year, and has moved to NYC over the last six months to expand his career.] Cindy Collucci is playing Mother Superior. I’m glad to see her back in a powerhouse role. Sarah Holcomb is Mary Patrick—a Wilmington theater fave who gets to play a role that is seemingly written for her. Amelia Torello as Mary Roberts is adorable, and Tony Rivenbark as Monsignor is hysterical. The bad guys, Jerrial Young, Anthony Cataldo, Khawon Porter, and Big Sam Robison have show-stopping numbers.
e: Are there themes in the play you think are relevant to today?
JS: Well, yes. But it is a period piece. Set in the ‘70s with the feel of the outrageous comedies of the ‘80s—and the music feels very fresh. I think the message of unity, and acceptance, friendship and hope could not be more relevant today.
Using a pretty wild platform, with some very silly characters, this show is still able to tug at your heart strings and nudges you to look inside yourself.
e: What about the music is most impressing you, Chiaki? Is it difficult to play?
Chiaki Ito (CI): There are a few big numbers that are pretty impressive to listen to. Because the show takes place in the ‘70s, it’s mostly disco and you know how I love some disco!
Think: Donna Summer. There’s also a couple numbers that have the Barry White groove. It’s pretty fun music. There are melodies you will probably go home singing.
e: Other genres we will hear…
CI: Disco, disco, and some ballads and three-part harmonies everywhere.
e: What is your favorite song? What about it is most appealing coming from a musician’s perspective?
CI: I’m not sure if I have a favorite song, but I like the last song in the show, “Spread the Love Around,” because of the message:
“Everyone, join your hands together. Everyone, find the common ground. Everyone, sister and brother, love one another, spread it around!”
There are many uplifting, toe-tapping, danceable, singable songs in the show; it’s hard to pick what song is my favorite.