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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Brother, is ‘Sister Act’ good

An energy-packed production is visiting Appleton.

PHOTO: The touring production of “Sister Act” is playing at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton. Production photo

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – To pull off “Sister Act” – to sell anything and everything about the musical – one being holds the key. The essential performer has to express a person larger than life, full of herself, with lung power, with an aura of showbiz grandeur/glitz, with street smarts, with a balance of I-could-care-less and please-I-wanna-live, be nimble of limb for dancing/grooving, be comical and simply/complexly radiate. Lacking any of that, “Sister Act” becomes a wounded duck. The touring production is visiting Fox Cities Performing Arts Center through Sunday, May 11. In the performance I saw on opening night Tuesday, May 6, understudy Mary Searcy ruled in the central role of disco darling Deloris Van Cartier. If the exciting vibe that the show reached at the end could be capped, the nation’s energy headaches would be wiped out.

“Sister Act” (4½ stars out of 5) is quite the fantasy: A wannabe disco queen who is witness to a murder by her slick-and-mean boyfriend is hidden by the Philadelphia police in a convent/church that’s about to close – and glittery Deloris Van Cartier saves all with her infectious musicality. Could happen. Really. Honest. It would have to be a Hollywood movie. Oh, I forgot, that’s where “Sister Act” started. Whoopi Goldberg propelled a hit and a sequel in the early ’90s. “Sister Act” the musical came along years later and in a way is a throwback show. It’s set in 1977-1978, starting on Christmas Eve. The music (Alan Menken is brilliant) is a mix of disco, gospel and soul with wafts of church/ecclesiastical music. In the way it is put together, “Sister Act” is an old-style show that feels right: Forget the hocus pocus of special effects and gizmos, just tell me a story. Laughs appear by the bundle. Clever turns are abundant. A few:

- Three gangsters who are chasing Deloris Van Cartier settle in at a bar across the street from the church where she’s hiding. One grumbles that their finding her is as likely as her walking in the door shouting “Merry Christmas!” – which she does, dressed as a nun.

- Curtis Jackson, Deloris Van Cartier’s bad-apple boyfriend sings a soul-style song, “When I Find My Baby,” that sounds romantic but is anything but. When lyricist Glenn Slater playfully tosses in “eviscerate” (to disembowel), you know that’s not love. On top of it, as the song develops, Curtis Jackson (Melvin Abston) and his three henchmen pour on the slick dance maneuvers of disco-soul singers of the era. There’s more merry mocking later when the three henchmen (Tad Wilson, Chris Chatman and Charles Barksdale) get into “Lady in the Long Black Dress” and show off their irresistible lady-killer A-material for wooing nuns. Funny? Man, my face hurts from smiling as I write this.

- The nuns. Ah, the nuns. The writers are merciless when they go through the virtues (not) of nun-dom in the song “It’s Good to be a Nun.” The satire is deep and rich. Musically, the nun ensemble goes from squeaking worse than a creaking door to sounding gospel-glorious, so much so that the nuns’ souped-up singing – sparkly habits and all – attracts the attention of the pope, who wants to see them on a visit to Philadelphia. Reality check: The pope in the show is called Pope Paul. In 1978, Pope John Paul II was late in his life. Pope John Paul II recently was made a saint. Just FYI: Devout Catholics might flip over the show’s flip treatment of their faith, though it’s kind of late in the game for that. The straight nun character is Mother Superior (the venerable Hollis Resnik), whose continual earnest prayers seeking guidance with Deloris Van Cartier, the loose wheel that has rolled her way, are seriously comical in their outcome.

- Back near the start, when Deloris Van Cartier sweeps into the police station seeking help, she connects again with one of her high school classmates. Turns out that “Sweaty Eddie” (Chester Gregory) had a crush on her. The character develops in layers – literally – being dumpy and suave in the song “I Could Be That Guy.”

- A turn in the postulant nun Mary Robert (Ashley Moniz) is pleasantly predictable – the squeaky-voiced, withdrawn creature to the confident being with a soaring sound in “The Life I Never Led.”

The show is spiced by all-out razzmatazz production numbers. Sparks fly with everything, again, owing to the abilities of the leading lady.

Interested? Information is at www.foxcitiespac.org.

***

Creative: Composer – Alan Menken; lyrics – Glenn Slater; book – Cheri and Bill Steinkellner; additional book material – Douglas Carter Beane; director – Jerry Zaks; conductor – Brent-Alan Huffman; scenic design – Klara Zieglerova; costume design – Lez Brotherston; choreographer – Anthony Van Laast.

Cast: Deloris Van Cartier - Ta’rea Campbell; Michelle - Gisela Adisa; Tina - Mary Searcy; Curtis Jackson - Melvin Abston; Joey - Tad Wilson; Pablo - Chris Chatman; TJ - Charles Barksdale; Ernie - Paul Nygro; Eddie Souther - Chester Gregory; Cop - Brian M. Love; Mother Superior - Hollis Resnik; Monsignor O’Hara - Richard Pruitt; Mary Robert - Ashley Moniz; Mary Patrick - Florrie Bagel; Mary Lazarus - Roberta B. Wall; Mary Martin-of-Tours - Amy Persons; Mary Theresa - Karen Elliott; Waitress - Natalie Storrs; Joey Finnochio - Chris Cooke; Ensemble - Gisela Adisa, Chris Cooke, Karen Elliott, Stephanie Hayslip, Brian M. Love, Micaela Martinez, Paul Nygro, Amy Persons, Dawn Rother, Mary Searcy, Jessica Sheridan, Natalie Storrs, Kelly E. Waters, Dashaun Young.

Songs

ACT I

“Take Me to Heaven,” Deloris, Michelle, Tina

“Fabulous, Baby!” Deloris, Michelle, Tina

“Here Within These Walls,” Mother Superior, Deloris

“It’s Good to Be a Nun,” Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, Mary Lazarus, Nuns

“When I Find My Baby,” Curtis, Joey, Pablo, TJ

“I Could Be That Guy,” Eddie, Bums

“Raise Your Voice,” Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, Mary Lazarus, Nuns

“Take Me to Heaven” (Reprise), Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, Mary Lazarus, Nuns

ACT II

“Sunday Morning Fever,” Deloris, Mother Superior, Monsignor O’Hara, Eddie,

Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, Mary Lazarus, Nuns, Workers

“Lady in the Long Black Dress,” Joey, Pablo, TJ

“Haven’t Got a Prayer,” Mother Superior

“Bless Our Show,” Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, Mary Lazarus, Nuns

“The Life I Never Led,” Mary Robert

“Fabulous, Baby!” (Reprise), Deloris, Eddie, Nuns, Fantasy Dancers

“Sister Act,” Deloris

“When I Find My Baby” (Reprise), Curtis

“The Life I Never Led” (Reprise), Mary Robert

“Sister Act” (Reprise), Deloris, Mother Superior, Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, Mary Lazarus, Nuns

“Spread the Love Around,” The Company

VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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