Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
It's a good thing when La Comedia Dinner Theatre introduces a new(ish) show into their repertoire. Sister Act finished its Broadway run in 2012, and it's just the type of show that the dinner theater, located in Springboro, Ohio, between Cincinnati and Dayton, should be producing. The cast and production values are a bit uneven, but a first-rate score and a story that is both funny and heartfelt make it a worthwhile theater option.
Based on the 1992 film by the same name, Sister Act tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a 1970s wannabe star who witnesses her gangster boyfriend Curtis murder someone. The police hide Deloris in a convent of nuns. Much strife and hilarity ensue as she's forced to adapt to life in disguise (even from the other nuns) and as the holy women are exposed to Deloris' worldly outlook and antics. The convent and church they serve are also revitalized as Deloris shapes their once dismal choir into a funky, glitzy performance group of great acclaim.
The show played London starting in 2009 with a book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner. By the time it opened on Broadway, Douglas Carter Beane had also been brought in to provide additional material. The result is a story that's clearly told, has lots of hilarious one-liners, and contains sufficient charm and heart. It's also somewhat predictable and lags at times in act two, but these are minor quibbles overall.
The score is by veteran songwriters Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics). Sister Act is Menken's best theater score since Little Shop of Horrors and skillfully captures the sounds of the late 1970s, including disco, funk, soul and gospel. The lyrics by Slater include a good use of internal rhymes, some unexpected playfulness ("When I Find My Baby"), and aptly sharp wit. Highlights include the driving "Fabulous, Baby," the stirring "Raise Your Voice," in which the nuns discover their singing abilities, and the contemplative and touching title number.
At La Comedia, director/choreographer Chris Beiser provides apt blocking and tone for the piece. There are times that the pace drags a bit (partially the fault of the script and due to some slower scene transitions due to the sets) and some of the humor doesn't land as it needs to (the audience might have something to do with that, too), but there is still plenty of time remaining in the run to improve in these areas. There is plenty of dance, and Beiser's choreography is fun, effective, and visually pleasing.
The program bio for Ashley St. Juliette states that this is her first leading role, but she handles the part well. Ms. St. Juliette has an occasional pitch issue and her diction could be clearer in spots, but she's overall a strong singer and has the requisite sass and attitude for the role. She also displays depth as the character comes to care for and respect her nun sisters. Linda Dew is just right as the uptight Mother Superior, and sings with great skill and confidence. Marc-Anthony Lewis manages to be both funny and menacing at the same time as Curtis, though a few of his comedic lyrics didn't produce the expected audience reaction at the performance I attended. John Rodney Turner puts his soulful vocals to excellent use as Sweaty Eddie, and shows some extensive acting chops as the nerdy cop who pines for Deloris. As Mary Robert, Hanna-Lyn Baxter supplies notable vocals and also convincingly shows growth as the character moves from timid to outspoken. The entire cast does a commendable job in all respectssinging, dancing and acting.
Ray Zupp's scenic design incorporates columns, some of which are quite beautiful (the church ones), but the reoccurring transfer of them in and out are clunky. The lighting by Geoffrey D. Fishburn has a few nice effects (disco ball glitz and stained glass window outlines), and the costumes by Emercita Erb are period appropriate and well-suited, from plan nun habits to sparkly versions of their performance outfits.
Sister Act should have a wide appeal for theatergoers, and the rousing songs and humorous story make it an entertaining one. The production by La Comedia isn't perfect, but it's solid overall and a welcome addition for the venue.
Sister Act continues at La Comedia Dinner Theatre in Springboro, Ohio, through June 18, 2017. Call 1-800 677-9505 or visit www.lacomedia.com for additional information and tickets.