Cape Fear Theatre Arts raises the curtain on a new year of theatre in Wilmington with a stunning production of “Sister Act the Musical,” directed by Justin Smith with musical direction by Chiaki Ito. The stage musical adapts the well-known Whoopi Goldberg film with a catchy score by Alan Menken of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Little Mermaid” fame, coupled with Glenn Slater’s witty lyrics.
Barbra Mootoo stars as Delores Van Cartier, an aspiring singer with the deck stacked against her. From the moment the stage lights come up and her magnificent voice rings out, she connects with the audience and energizes the entire building. “Take Me To Heaven” sets the tone—with backup singers, Michelle (LaRaisha Burnette) and Tina (Anna Gamel)—about her abusive gangster lover, Curtis Shank (Jerrial Young) and his henchmen TJ (Khawon Porter), Pablo (Anthony Cataldo) and Joey (Sam Robison). Curtis has promised Delores can sing at his club, and he will launch her on the road to stardom. Where Tina and Michelle are pretty insightful, Curtis’ gang is so humorously inept, the audience has to wonder how he can possibly be the underworld kingpin that makes the Philadelphia PD quake in their boots. Picture the Keystone cops but as would-be gangsters and lounge lizards. Their laughable plan for seduction, as outlined in “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” is equal parts bad singles ad, deluded Penthouse letters and great performances.
However, Young is genuinely scary, especially when he sings with his gang “When I Find My Baby,” which blends the choreography and music of Motown with the manifesto of domestic abuse. The dichotomy is striking and underscores much of Delores’ journey in the show.
Delores accidentally witnesses Young execute an informant and as a result finds herself in police protection directed by Officer Eddie (Paul Teal), a long lost friend from high school. “Sweaty Eddie” is the most uncool dork imaginable. But he worshipped Delores in high school and the years have not diminished his admiration for her.
Delores, on the other hand, does not have enough sense of self yet to see past the surface of this goofy, well-meaning cop to the well of strength and decency underneath. Teal is known to Wilmington audiences for a variety roles, including Jackson in “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” and Huey in “Memphis” (which also starred Mootoo). The level of absurd geekiness he brings to this role is incredibly funny, especially in “I Could Be That Guy”—a disco send-up of every loser’s aspiration to popularity, complete with an onstage break-away costume change into Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever” ensemble, ably assisted by his backup dancers of homeless drunks on skid row. It is musical farce and Teal has to sell to make it work, which he does with incredible conviction and joy.
Officer Eddie hides Delores in a convent, much to the dismay of both Delores and the Mother Superior (Cindy Colucci). However, Monsignor O’Hara (Tony Rivenbark) is happy to accept a donation to the financially strapped church in exchange for keeping Delores hidden. (My date worked on Jimmy Swaggart’s show for a brief time and commented how Rivenbark’s rendition of the priest with dollar signs in his eyes was a funnier but milder version of life with Jimmy.)
Thus begins a struggle of wills between everyone trying to keep Delores safe, and her complete unwillingness to get with the program and cooperate for her own survival. On “Here Within These Walls,” Mother Superior offers a sanctuary, a time to re-evaluate and find a way forward that is focused on more than the material world. Colucci’s voice is beautiful, but her performance as an actress is what really sells this role and makes much of the dramatic tension work.
Delores, renamed Sister Mary Clarence, meets the other nuns at a culture-shock fueled dinner “It’s Good to Be A Nun.” Joining the choir, directed by Sister Mary Lazarus (Debra Gillingham), Delores and the nuns (Carli Batson, Teri Harding, Robin Heck, Emma Hutchinson, Denyse McDonnell, Courtney Poland, Michelle Reiff, Madison Moss, Emilia Torello, and Sarah Holcomb) find a whole new way to worship the Lord. It miraculously fills pews and church coffers. But, as their fame grows, it becomes harder for Delores to keep a low profile.
This show is so much fun from beginning to end. Chiaki Ito’s band rocks the score and the performers’ voices are captivating. The nuns, especially, are delightful in blending humor, warmth, naiveté, and growth to make each scene memorable and the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
More hinges on Mootoo than meets the eye. Her role and performance sets the bar for everything else to follow. Actually, there is a moment in the script when Delores comments to Mother Superior that when she steps up to sing with the choir, it surprises her to find the nuns there with her. The audience sees evidence throughout the show: At every turn Mootoo pushes more energy and commitment. In spite of her fabulous voice, the role requires a tremendous amount of acting. Again, she listens, responds and truly follows the classic hero’s path to find a better life and a person of true worth and strength.
Visually, the show is equally appealing, with a set from Chinchilla Theatrical Scenic, Terry Collins and Dallas Lafon. But Debbie Scheu’s costumes are a sparkly, sequined wonder to behold. No stranger to stage magic, her work adds authenticity from Delores’ first dress (which desperately wants to be a tube top instead of a strapless dress—a battle that is fascinating to watch) to the assorted religious garb of the nuns and priest. Every time I see a show she costumes, I marvel at her attention to detail and her ability to deliver it consistently with such large casts.
“Sister Act” rings in a wonderful evening of theatre with a cast that thrills and enthralls in every moment. Along with spot-on design aesthetics, it really shows the magic of theatre come alive.