Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's reviews of Sweat and Menopause the Musical
The show opens at a '70s nightclub where we find Deloris Van Cartier (Miriam Dance), who is having an affair with married gangster Curtis Jackson (played by a suitably menacing Berto Fernandez). After seeing Curtis murder a colleague, Deloris gets police protection, thanks to station desk chief Eddie Souther (Jeremy Whatley). Eddie places her in the witness protection program, but the catch is that Deloris has to disguise herself as a nun.
Bill and Cheri Steinkellner's book (with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) uses the unusual situation for fish-out-of-water jokes. Deloris' frank and raunchy attitude captivates many of the nuns at the convent where she lives, with the exception of the old-school Mother Superior (Sandy Campbell). From early on, the script finds a successful balancing act between having fun with the material and the dramatic conflicts in the story. Curtis' threatening personality and Deloris' eventual bond with the nuns are played earnestly, but with plenty of one-liners, clever references to the '70s and occasional slapstick. SDMT's production also provides a fair and positive depiction of Catholicism and nuns that will appeal to religious audiences without alienating other theatregoers. Musical numbers by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater cover a variety of styles, and tie in well with the dialogue.
Sister Act features songs such as "Take Me to Heaven," "When I Find My Baby," and "Lady in the Long Black Dress" that pay homage to popular artists such as The Supremes, the Bee Gees, Barry White, and Van McCoy. Choreography by Luke Harvey Jacobs during the melodies cleverly mimics the dances of the '70s. There are also songs such as "It's Good to Be a Nun," "Haven't Got a Prayer," and "Bless Our Show" written in a more traditional musical-theatre style that provide a contrast to the '70s-esque music. The orchestra led by resident musical director/conductor Don LeMaster features guitarist Nikko Nobelzo, trombonist Ray Azevedo, and drummer Don Khuli, who play Menken's versatile music with masterful skill. As with any musical, the book and musical numbers drive the production, and director Larry Raben ensures that we are entertained by the plot as well as by the numbers.
Raben keeps the laughs coming, even while some of the characters face dramatic situations. He handles the music and dialogue in a way that feels natural to the events that occur on Mathys Herbert's church-themed set. Some issues with sound designer Jon Fredette's miking and an early lighting cue by lighting designer Michelle Miles were experienced at the performance I attended. Despite these minor instances, their work was able to stand out throughout the performance. Thanks to Fredette, the orchestra could be clearly heard, and Miles' lighting is appropriate for the scenes set in urban Philadelphia and the convent.
Dance and Campbell both sing beautifully, and their interaction is often quite funny. The most moving scenes, however, are given to Whatley and Sarah Errington, who plays the initially quiet nun Mary Robert. They portray good people who don't get the positive attention they deserve. Their vocals on the poignant "I want" songs "I Could Be That Guy" (Whatley) and "The Life I Never Led" (Errington) are powerful. In addition to these members of the ensemble, there are also hilarious supporting performances by Bethany Slomka, Jim Chovick, Donny Gersonde, Gerardo Flores Tonella, and E.Y. Washington that add to the enjoyment of the show.
San Diego Musical Theatre's production is a lighthearted one and full of crowd-pleasing moments. It's both a fun and touching celebration of sisterhood.
Sister Act, through May 26, 2019, at San Diego Musical Theatre, 444 Fourth Avenue, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $30 and be purchased online at www.sdmt.org or by phone at 858-560-5740.