A review by Mark Sebastian Jordan of the Renaissance Theater’s production “Sister Act.”
It’s not my business here to outrage anyone of a traditional religious bent (though I probably will), but I have devoted my life to finding the places where the truly sacred happens, beatnik beattitudes instead of by-the-rote platitudes. And, truth is, I found my God on Sunday. In a rowdy theater.
I’m not much of a musical comedy person, despite my years in theater. I have performed a grand total of one (1) singing role in a musical, and it may surprise no one to hear that I was drawn to do the part of Benjamin Franklin in 1776, as he’s my hero. But acting, directing, and writing plays has taught me to recognize the infusion of spirit when I see it, and I saw it Sunday in the Renaissance Theater’s performance of Sister Act.
To give full disclosure, I have been a frequent if elusive player in the north central Ohio theater scene for over thirty years. Many of the people I’ll be talking about in this review are people I’ve worked with, but I only point this out to assure the reader that I’m not succumbing to boosterism or favoritism. These folks really are good, and no one is paying me to say that.
Sister Act is in some ways a piece of fluff. There’s a predictable enough plot about a showgirl hiding from a dastardly gangster in a convent. And Alan Menken’s music is pretty much the essence of the modern American musical mainstream, so effective simply because it is so predictable, but predictable because Menken has mastered the essence of so many genres. He’s a magpie that steals from everywhere then knits a flawless garment out of what he’s stolen. And Sister Act is a large cast show, so, sure, every character just has to have their moment to sing. No doubt, there’s a formula there, a well-worn formula that works. As musical theater craft goes, the script is also solid and dependable.
What this means, though, is that a great performance is by no means guaranteed. It’s the kind of show that will sink or swim on the shoulders of its performers. That it swam like an Olympic gold medalist in this production is a salute to all the artists involved.
The show was a star vehicle for Condrea Webber, who clearly savored the sass and vocal daring of the role of Deloris van Cartier. The lower end of the part’s range arguably lies below Webber’s strongest register, but when the vocal lines arched, she soared. Her performance was paced to peak late in the show without using up her voice early on, but she nonetheless commanded focus with a natural presence, enabling her to carry the show through scenes large and small. One felt that the rallying of the nuns around Deloris was no mere acting, it felt like Webber’s natural function among this group of thespians.
Lori Turner was the perfect foil to sassy Deloris as the archly conservative Mother Superior. Turner’s extensive background as a classical singer suited the role in its contrast with the soul-based voice of Webber. Turner likewise has a big stage presence, able to quietly shoot daggers with her eyes in a way that penetrates to the back of a 1400-seat house. Seeing the strong wills of these two leads bend to embrace near the end of the show was a joy not because this turn of plot was a surprise, but because the two actors so intensely inhabited their characters, it was a monumental shift to see them connect.
It’s hard to write about Beau Roberts, who played the gangster Vince LaRocca (not the character name in the script, rather the character name from the original film the musical is based on), because he’s so damned good. It’s not just that Roberts knows all the techniques for portraying a character role like this—many do. The difference is that Roberts applies all this skill, then somehow finds a way to bring it back to life and make you forget all that hard work. Each role this actor performs is never about Beau Roberts. You can always step back and wonder how the character is being run through the prism of Beau Roberts, but each one remains a separate and distinctive personality with his own set of mannerisms, quirks, and energy. And who knew Beau could sing?
But for all the presence and skill of the leads, one of the biggest stories from this show is the voice of Mary Frankenfield as Sister Mary Patrick. Though physically small, Frankenfield has a grand voice, one that effortlessly sailed out above the canned music and shook the chandelier. If the average pretty voice is like 2% milk, than Frankenfield’s voice is cream, rich and substantial. Someone needs to cast her in a musical lead right now, because not only does she have a glorious voice, Frankenfield also exhudes an energy that conveys the joy of blooming in the spotlight. One never doubts for a moment that no matter how tongue-in-cheek the material, witnessing Mary Frankenfield in performance is to witness a sacred act. It’s the kind of commitment that would transform this world if we all approached what we do with this fervor.
Colton Penwell so completely physicalized the discouraged slump of Deloris’ eventual love interest Eddie that his transformation into disco-strutting leading man simply could not have been funnier. Watching the character return to his sagging defeat pulled the heart strings. It’s truly the magic of theater to take something so seemingly small as slumped shoulders and make it into such a big part of the show
As Vince’s posse, Eddie Noble, Deon Taylor, and Jody Odom stole scenes right and left. Noble’s suaveness, Taylor’s grace and vocal flair, and Odom’s hilariously spastic moves were belly laugh material. Additional gems came from Sue Amstutz as the kooky Sister Mary Lazarus, Mike Miller as the harried Monsignor O’Hara, and Maddie Beer in the endearing role of the shy novice who finds her spirit (literally), Sister Mary Robert.
Michael Thomas’ direction welded the large show together with an ensemble spirit, never losing its warmth even as it kept things moving along across Jason Kaufman’s elegantly arched Gothic set. Dauphne Maloney’s colorful costumes joined with Shannon Maloney’s inventive choreography and Kelly Knowlton’s sculpted musical direction to make the show an endless pleasure.
What was clear to me while watching the closing moments of the performance lead into a standing, shouting ovation was that for all its boisterousness and sometimes crass humor, Sister Act became, in this performance at least, a true church: a sacred place where performers could ask for love and kindness from the audience because they were so clearly giving it to all.
Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a world like this, one where people would listen for the whispers of God in places other than just in church.