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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Musical ‘Sister Act’ full of spirit in Oconto Falls

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Phoenix Players

Posing for a gag photo outside The Penguin… Again restaurant in Oconto Falls is the cast of the Phoenix Players production of “Sister Act,” clockwise from center front, Amada Hein, Lilly Wisnefske, Maribeth Weidner, Tara Huber, Staci Carper and Ashley Borman. (Phoenix Players)

OCONTO FALLS, Wis. (WFRV)

At the time, I couldn’t imagine my junior high choir teacher, Mr. Freshly, performing in a musical. But, given the right show, he probably would have been pretty good.

With the Phoenix Players’ production of “Sister Act,” two choir teachers are in action, and they are more than just pretty good. They are sha-zam! Each also has lassoed family members or students into the cast for a shared experience.

The production mounted by Phoenix Players has a cohesive, one-for-all/all-for-one feel in the frisky story.

The community theater troupe based in Clintonville is venturing to Falls Area Performing Arts Center for a road trip of a kind. Three more performances remain in the well-equipped facility in Oconto Falls High School.

The musical has roots in the 1992 movie “Sister Act,” which included a star-laden soundtrack – versus being a musical with story-specific songs as is being presented by Phoenix Players.

The story: Wannabe singing star Deloris Van Cartier witnesses a murder by her hotshot lover Curtis and, after she goes to the police, is hidden for her own protection among the nuns in a failing church. The cop hiding Deloris is her high school classmate who she called “Sweaty Eddie.” He still yearns for her. Deloris’ showbiz ways keep running afoul of the nuns’ Mother Superior as Deloris turns the sour-singing nuns into a go-to choir that attracts throngs and TV exposure and the attention of murder-minded Curtis.

Humor is splashed all around, like in the song “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” Six nuns ironically/eagerly extoll the virtues of nun-dom in a laundry list of disciplined requirement after disciplined requirement.

This production has a number of make-do elements in set work and casting found in community theater shows. But it also entertains and has big strengths.

As Deloris, Tara Huber has a strong, supple, flexible, limber, BIG pop/soul voice and commanding way – signs of what she does in front a classroom. Tara Huber’s vivid performance is the foundation of this production.

Side note: The cop “Sweaty Eddie” of the story happens to be Tara Huber’s husband, Ben Huber, who happens to have a solo, “I Could Be That Guy,” that requires the expression of an aching heart that needs to be “sold” in singing ways. Signs are, there were some vocal teaching moments in the Huber household.

Butting heads with Deloris as the Mother Superior is Brandon Byng in one of the production’s bits of stunt-casting. Brandon Byng also directs, with cast camaraderie showing as it often does in his shows. Brandon Byng has a smooth voice that suits the role and a way of capturing the comical exasperation of Mother Superior as Deloris does what Deloris wants to do. The role of Mother Superior also tones down the irreverence found throughout the story.

Amanda Hein is a bundle of energy in varied character roles, each in a cracked voice that belies her being a music teacher in real life. In one key role, she is shot. In another, she is a live-wire nun and is especially wiry at that.

Side notes: From Bowler, where Amanda Hein teachers, come students Lilly Wisnefske and Isley Welch stepping into key roles and solos. As nun Mary Robert, Lilly Wisnefske delivers the heartfelt “The Life I Never Led.” As bad guy Curtis, Isley Welsh soul-sings the warmly threatening (quite a combination) “When I Find My Baby.”

Tara Huber/Deloris leads the teamwork surrounding the singing nuns, played in lively ways by Maribeth Weidner, Ashley Borman, Staci Carper, Lilly Wisnefske and Amanda Heim. Things get really over the top when the nuns sing and dance to disco takes on churchy things, complete with flashy lamé costume add-ons.

In another of the show’s out-there songs, Zeke Fietsch and Magnum Michonski, as Curtis’ henchmen, sing in comic/smoothie ways about how their characters are going to woo nuns. The song is “Lady in the Long Black Dress.”

To set scenes, images are projected on three screens of such places as a church with large stained-glass windows, a neon-splashy nightclub and “Sweaty Eddie’s” bachelor-messy apartment.

“Sister Act” has not been done often by community theaters in this region – maybe never. Phoenix Players brushes aside certain STOP signs and creates something infectious, thanks in much part to a vigorous lead.

***

Creative: Based on motion picture “Sister Act” written by Joseph Howard: music – Alan Menken; lyrics – Glenn Slater; book – Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner; additional book material – Douglas Carter Beane; director – Brandon Byng; producer – Mary-Beth Kuester; vocal director/rehearsal pianist – Amanda Hein; lights and sound technician – Briana Salzman, set construction – Ben Huber, Tara Huber; costumes – Maribeth Weidner, Amanda Hein, Debbie Byng

Cast:

Delores Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence – Tara Huber

Mother Superior – Brandon Byng

Sister Mary Robert/Michelle – Lilly Wisnefske

Sister Mary Patrick/Tina – Maribeth Weidner

Sister Mary Lazarus/Ernie/Waitress – Amanda Hein

Monsignor O’Hara – Ray Huber

Curtis Jackson – Isley Welch

Eddie Souther – Ben Huber

TJ – Zeke Fietsch

Joey – Magnum Michonski

Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours/Hooker – Ashley Borman

Sister Mary Theresa – Staci Carper

Cop/Bar Patron/Cab Driver/Nun – Thayer Fietsch

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Aug. 16-17, 1 p.m. Aug. 18

Info: phoenixplayerswi.com

***

Musical selections (recorded)

Act I

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

“Fabulous, Baby!” – Deloris, Michelle, Tina

“The Perfect Place” – Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa

“Here Within These Walls” – Mother Superior, Deloris, Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa

“It’s Good to Be a Nun” – Mary Clarence, Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa

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

“I Could Be That Guy” – Eddie

“Here Within These Walls” (Reprise) – Mother Superior

“Raise Your Voice” – Mary Clarence, Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa

“Take Me to Heaven” (Nun Choir) – Mary Clarence, Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa, Monsignor O’Hara, Mother Superior, Eddie

Act II

“Sunday Morning Fever” – Mary Clarence, Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa, Monsignor O’Hara, Mother Superior, Eddie

“Take Me to Heaven” (Newscast) – Mary Clarence, Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa, Curtis, TJ, Joey

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

“Haven’t Got a Prayer” – Mother Superior

“Bless Our Show” – Mary Clarence, Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa

“The Life I Never Led” – Mary Robert

“Fabulous, Baby!” (Reprise) – Eddie, Deloris, Michelle, Tina, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa

“Sister Act” – Deloris

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

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

“Sister Act” (Reprise) – Deloris, Mother Superior, Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours, Mary Theresa

“Spread the Love Around” – Company

“Raise Your Voice” (Reprise) – Company

***

THE VENUE: Falls Area Performing Arts Center is located within Oconto Falls High School, 210 N. Farm Road, in Oconto Falls. Opened in 2002, the well-appointed facility holds 754 seats. The theater house includes many architectural and design features. Dominant colors are gray and tan, the tan often appearing in wood. A large proscenium stage rises about three feet above the main floor. Included is an adjustable area for an orchestra pit, with large acoustical wood paneling available for the back of the stage for concerts. The stage front is brick at the bottom with a green metal framework of squares along the top lip. The stage is framed by wood at the top and upper sides, with two-tone brick columns part of the side décor. A large dark red curtain is used for theater events. Side walls are upper-grade brickwork combined with wood elements for décor. Side wall lighting fixtures are artistic, with red circles beneath white frosted-glass coverings with tan lips. Between the light fixtures are areas of light gray walls with designs akin to parentheses – (). The seating area includes a light gray painted sloping floor and dark-gray plastic seat backs and fabric seat bottom and back coverings with a light gray geometric pattern. The ceiling is a continuation of the gray-tan patterning, this time in squares, with black elements surrounding inset lights interspersed. The statement of this community auditorium is it is meant to be a showcase.

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