It’s always interesting to see productions in the round at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Set design must be creative and lightweight, and the actors’ movements on the square stage must give each side of the audience approximately equal face time. But regardless of these difficulties–which the Marriott typically overcomes easily–shows there are made or broken by the quality of the acting and direction. And in star Stephanie Umoh, the theatre’s production of Sister Act has found the ultimate salvo for any shortcomings.
If you’ve never seen Sister Act, here’s a brief synopsis: Delores Van Cartier, an aspiring disco diva and the polar opposite of a nun, sees a murder and has to go into witness protection at a convent. Naturally, her personality can’t be contained, and she ends up revitalizing the convent’s sorry choir. Playing Van Cartier takes a combination of sass, spunk, and sweetness, which Umoh delivered perfectly when I saw the performance on opening night. Her confidence lit the building on fire when she led two of the younger nuns into a bar for the first time; she kept time with her whole body, her backside become a beating heart, as she conducted her sisters in soul-injected hymns. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Umoh’s performance was her ability to convey emotions and attitude with merely her face when the rest of her body language is muted by the habit and robes she dons at Queen of Angels Convent. Even when her back was to me (which happened often on the Marriott’s stage), a subtle move of the head was enough to inspire howls of laughter.
Umoh can sing damn well, too. Most of her songs take place in the context of the group of nuns, with whom she blends and finds the perfect balance of leadership and allowing the others to have their moments in the sun. In a nutshell, that’s the growth Van Cartier undergoes over the course of Sister Act–the realization that she has been selfish, and that having real friends–real sisters–around her, inspiring a sense of altruism, is her surest way to happiness. I thought her voice a bit weak on the opening number, “Take Me To Heaven,” as if she were still warming up. Then again, perhaps the weakness was intentional, as Van Cartier the character doesn’t have star level talent she so fervently desires. This wouldn’t be a huge surprise given the astute and comedic sense of realism that pervades Sister Act, masterfully brought forth by director Don Stephenson. The best example of this occurs during the sequence surrounding “I Could Be That Guy,” in which nice-guy cop “Sweaty Eddie” Souther fantasizes about his crush on Van Cartier. The homeless folks to whom he sings looked at him as if he’s crazier than them…until they stripped off his police blues to reveal a flashy white-and-red jacket-less tux underneath and indulge his fantasy…and then they stripped off the tux to reveal yet another police uniform, giving him the stank-eye once again. It was hilarious and slightly heartbreaking at the same time, the pocket in which Sister Act finds its greatest strength.
Hollis Resnik, a veteran of the national touring company that put on Sister Act starting in 2012, was the perfect foil to Umoh’s Van Cartier in her role as the Mother Superior. Her dry sarcasm humanized her otherwise austere character (as did hearing her voice over the loudspeakers in the theatre, delivering the pre-show request to turn off cell phones in a very Catholic school manner). Each of the other bit characters excelled as well, particularly Lillian Castillo as the positively buoyant Sister Mary Patrick and Tiffany Tatreau as Sister Mary Robert, the baby of the group and a rebel on unsteady legs.
Just about my only quibble with the show was that hardly anything happened in the second act, which was almost entirely composed of songs–the pacing could have been a bit better. But seeing as it was the music that had the crowd doing everything but getting out of their seats to dance, that may actually have been a good thing. Riotously hilarious and full of soaring songs, Sister Act is well worth the trip to the suburbs.
Sister Act plays at the Marriott until April 3rd. Tickets are available here.