Singer Deloris Van Cartier accidentally sees her boyfriend, Philadelphia mobster Curtis Jackson, murder a man in his office in front of his fellow gangsters. She runs to police headquarters, where she meets old high school friend Lt. Eddie “sweaty Eddie” Souther, who had a crush on her back then. He needs her to testify against Curtis, but knows she might be killed before the trial. The cop has got to hide her and selects, of all places, a local convent that might soon close with its church. He reasons that the nuns will protect her. The good Lord will protect her. Who could ever find her in a convent?
Will Curtis and his goons find her and kill her?
That is the plot of the smart, jubilant musical Sister Act, that just opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. It is a romping, stomping, buoyant, clap-your-hands-and-sing-the-Lord’s praises good show. The lively musical is based on the 1992 movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg is one of her finest performances.
Does the plot thicken when Deloris moves into the convent? Hallelujah! Oh, yes it does.
The hard-nosed mother superior, wonderfully played by Jennifer Allen, learns that Deloris is a singer and asks her to sing in the convent’s absolutely dreadful choir. Street tough Deloris falls in love with the nuns, a gang of heavenly bound, fervently praying acolytes of the Lord who with a nudge from Deloris can sing and dance like nobody’s business. Deloris gives them a sense of style as sell as a sense of religious mission and they draw big Sunday audiences and become a big hit in Philly. TV stations put them on, newspaper run their pictures and the radio just loves them. The church fund drive goes through the roof as the church is filled with people there to hear the choir that sings to the Lord- with kick’em dead style. The church moves when those girls sing.
Unfortunately, mobster Curtis sees her on television and sets out with his men to murder her at the convent.
The Pope arrives to listen to the girls, too, and the church is surrounded by police to protect him. How can Curtis and his gunmen get in?
What makes Sister Act such a lovable hit is the way that playwrights Cheri and Bill Steinkellner show the personal effect that Deloris has on the nuns and how her friendship transforms all of them. Their connections are lessons for all of us.
What also makes it successful, too, is the music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slat. There are no memorable songs in the play, but the music, regardless of the tempo. really helps to tell the story and, once again, develop the characters. An example is “The Life I Never Led” by Sister Mary Roberts, who is beginning to doubt her call to the church. In her song, she pours out her frustrations and it really shapes her as a character. There are other songs done with skill by some of the nuns that show why they became nuns and what they expect out of the rather mundane life they chose (until Deloris hits town). The songs serve as a lovely backdrop to the story.
The songs and the character development all come together at the end of the play, when Curtis does find Deloris and pulls out is gun and prepares to shoot her when what appears to be 5,000 nuns jump into the scene. There is another great song at that point, where Deloris explains that by then she has become a “sister” with all of her new religious friends.
Will Curtis kill her or will the nuns, somebody, stop him? Will she escape and keep running until the play ends? Will the nuns battle the Mob all over Philadelphia?
Praise the Lord!
The musical has tremendous acting, led by Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Deloris. The play opens with her singing in a night club audition and you can see her talents as a singer. She sings all of her songs well and leads the habit wearing ensemble with great skill. It is her dramatic acting, though with numerous comic touches, that gives strength to the play. All of the other performers in the musical, generally play off her character – or against her character. As an example, Curtis has three very scary, and yet very daffy, gunmen chasing Deloris. They sing and dance with panache, but it is their acting that gives their characters pizzazz – and makes the audience howl with delight.
All of the actresses who play the nuns, Kara Mikula as the giggling Sister Mary Patrick, Belinda Allyn as Sister Mary Robert, Diane J. Findlay as Sister Mary Lazarus, Alain Mills as Sister Martin – of – Tours, and Madeleine Doherty as Sister Mary Theresa are wonderful. Other good performances are by Jarran Muse as Lt. Eddie Souther, John Treacy Egan as Monsignor O’Hara Michael Schimmele as Curtis and Ryan Gregory Thurman, Todd A. Horman and Anthony Alfaro as his gunmen. They all mesh nicely as an ensemble.
The sets for the play are spartan, but the costumes by Lez Brotherston more than make up for that (yes, you can get some real dazzle out of those drab black and white nun’s habits.) So, if you want to get in good with the Father, Son and Holy Smokes (Deloris said that, not me) go to see Sister Act. Kneel down, grab your rosary beads, clasp your hand together, get out your bible and get ready to rock along with the nuns. Wait ‘til Saint Peter meets these nuns. He’ll jump up and boogie.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
PHOTOS BY EVAN ZIMMERMAN FOR MURPHYMADE & JEREMY DANIEL