These Sisters Got Soul

Struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit murder.  To protect her until the trial, Deloris is placed in a convent under the guise of Sister Mary Clarence.  Her antics and personality bring her into conflict with the staid, old school Mother Superior as well as inspires the other nuns to get their Jesus on by jazzing up their lousy and archaic singing.  This is Sister Act written by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  It is inspired by the hit comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg.

The singing and dancing are worth the price of admission on their own.  Menken’s peppy music is enhanced by another stellar performance from Jim Boggess (who also has a nice cameo as Pope Paul VI) and his orchestra who deftly handle the 70s style soul and gospel rock score.  Melanie Walters surpasses herself with choreography that was original, perfectly precise for the show’s era, and utterly flawless.  No dancer missed a step and they were so skillful and smooth, you’d think you were watching a professional troupe.

Kimberly Faith Hickman nails her debut as the Playhouse’s Artistic Director to the floor with her directorial work for this piece.  Scene changes were smooth as silk.  The energy of the cast was sky high.  She managed to cull the very best work out of her performers from the experienced veterans to the fresh newbies and misses nary a beat in her coaching.

Ms Hickman’s directing is especially impressive as the script did not give her a lot to work with.  I’m not sure what the Steinkellners were thinking when they wrote this show, but they took the story of the movie and shaved it to its barest bones.  Important supporting characters had their roles cut to next to nothing and so much of the story was stripped away that the show’s second act is, more or less, a sung through musical with just a touch of dialogue here and there.  For those who know the movie and are expecting rocked up hymns, expel that notion.  None of those songs are in the play.

Zhomontee Watson stuns as Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence.  In Act II, she is everything that you’d expect Deloris to be.  She’s got sass, swagger, and razzmatazz.  She also does a nice job showing Deloris’ transformation from diva loner to soul sister.  Ms Watson has a really strong alto voice which she uses well in “Take Me to Heaven” and in a fine dramatic turn in “Sister Act”.  Now Ms Watson just needs to do all the things she did in Act II and move it to Act I.

Likely due to opening night nerves, Ms Watson was a little slow getting out of the gate.  Her diction was a bit mushy and she needed to project more.  But that improved markedly as her confidence grew and had mostly vanished by Act II.  I’d also suggest for her to be even bigger and take things just a little bit farther in her interpretation of the role.

Even with some time to think, I’m not sure how I feel about Judy Anderson as the Mother Superior.  Not that she was weak.  From a technical standpoint, her work was quite solid.  Her own alto voice did justice to showing Mother Superior’s fears about the world in “Here Within these Walls” and her frustration with Deloris shaking up the convent in “Haven’t Got a Prayer”.  But something about her character seemed off.  As an old schooI nun, I thought the role needed to be more of a straight man and it seemed too jokey and I’m not sure if the problem lies in the writing or the acting choices, but I tend to lean towards the former.

Brian Priesman milks the role of Curtis for everything that it’s worth.  As Deloris’ gangster boyfriend, Priesman is a bullying brute who easily cows his underlings.  Priesman’s diction and projection are of excellent quality and his light tenor easily handled the show’s best number “When I Find My Baby” with just the right touch of grim humor.

Marcel Daly does a pretty serviceable job as Eddie, the police officer who protects Deloris.  He needs to loosen up a bit as some of his dialogue sounded stiff and memorized, but he did have a nice meekness to him.  He also fakes bad dancing really well in “I Could Be That Guy” which is also strengthened by his beautiful tenor.

The supporting cast does terrific work in bolstering the story by always staying within the thick of the action.  Special notice goes to Sally Neumann Scamfer who is delightfully acidic and acerbic as Sister Mary Lazarus and Sara Mattix who is just so sweet and innocent as Sister Mary Patrick.  But I want to stand up and bow to Justin Eller, Jonathan Smith, and Adam Fulbright who steal every scene that they are in as Curtis’ lackeys Joey, TJ, and Pablo.  Their comedic timing is spot on.  Their dancing is so effortless.  And I was extremely pleased by the falsetto work of Smith and Fulbright.

I think the light and scenic work of Jim Othuse for this show ranks among his best.  I loved the gorgeous church interiors with its wood textures and the red light district of Philadelphia.  Georgiann Regan should be proud of her costumes especially the performing habits of the nuns.

I’d highly recommend getting a ticket as quick as you can because the Playhouse has another hit on its hands as evidenced by a nearly full house for this preview night performance.  Any shortcomings in the story are more than overcome by the songs and presentation and you’ll want to get your praise on before the night is done.

Sister Act plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through October 16.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Wednesday night shows are $32 for adults and $20 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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