By Dale King
Mirth and glitz mingle with murder, mobsters and fine vocals in Sister Act, the musical that’s wrapping up the two-play Summer Rep schedule at Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus.
Students in the master of fine arts graduate program join forces with four Actors Equity performers to present the show based on the 1992 movie featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a fake nun on the run.
The musical version hit stages starting in 2006. And while its Alan Menken score lacks the oomph of the film’s soundtrack, the show that packed FAU’s Studio One Theatre on opening weekend is still delightful.
MFA student Indya Jackson steps to the head of her class, literally, nailing the Whoopi role with finesse. Jackson portrays Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer in Philadelphia, where she is auditioning to perform at her gangster boyfriend’s nightclub. Deloris believes that her squeeze, Curtis — played with creepy charm by Ryan Page — is going to boost her career.
She gets royally peeved when he tells her she’s not ready for the big time, so the flamboyant chanteuse wannabe decides to break up with him. Bad timing, though. She walks in just as he is bumping off one of his cronies.
So where does a woman on the lam in Philly go? The police, who claim her as their star witness in Curtis’ murder trial, hide her among nuns at a local church.
For those familiar with the film, the stage version of Sister Act has a different score. Composer Alan Menken didn’t feel the original songs — 1950s and 1960s pop classics like “Roll With Me, Henry,” “Rescue Me” and “Shout,” arranged by Marc Shaiman — would fit in a musical theater context. So he wrote a new score that required the setting be changed from San Francisco and Reno in the 1990s to gritty Philadelphia in the 1970s.
Despite some strong numbers – such as “Sunday Morning Fever,” a playful nod to the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” — it takes Jackson a while to seize ownership of the lead role, which she eventually does, particularly in her more assured second act. A scratchy sound system – at least on opening weekend – was also no friend to Jackson or other vocalists.
The new score eliminates the feel that the stage show is just a film remake. And it also gives performers a chance to find their own niche. But it does deprive the audience of one of the film’s best moments – the nuns’ version of “My God,” derived from Mary Wells’ “My Guy.”
The plot device showing Deloris boosting the nun choir’s singing ability is part of the film and stage show. The religious ladies also get a chance to stand on their own and face down the Mother Superior, earnestly portrayed by Equity actor and FAU associate professor Kathryn Lee Johnston, when Deloris must leave the nunnery to testify.
Even with a different score, there’s still a lot to like. “It’s Good to Be a Nun” and “Raise Your Voice” put Deloris, Sister Mary Patrick (Alexandria Thomas), Sister Mary Robert (Aubrey Elson), Sister Mary Lazarus (Jeanne Bennett) and other nuns in the spotlight. They also gather to conclude Act I with a reprise of “Take Me to Heaven,” the song that opened the act and featured Deloris with her two backup singers, Michelle (Talia Jaeger) and Tina (Loretta Woldrop).
In Act II, Deloris and Curtis meet for their inevitable faceoff. And the nuns, hyped for their performance before Pope Paul VI, mull their own futures. Elson, herself a student and Equity card holder, sings “The Life I Never Led,” giving voice to her ponderings with lovely tones.
Plaudits go to visiting Equity players Bennett, Philip Chaffin as Monsignor O’Hara and to Christina Baroniel, who stage-managed both Sister Act and Sabrina Fair, the first Summer Rep show.
Alec Kalled is a hoot as Curtis’ goofy sidekick, Joey; Christian Mouisset is top-notch as TJ and Brian Cox is lovable in the role of “Sweaty” Eddie Souther.
Lee Soroko directs the action and Becky Timms, who has choreographed more than 60 productions and has worked on and off Broadway, aptly guides the footwork.
Music Director Greg Brown leads the live band that includes Michael Ursua, Jesse Veliz, Ryan Hecker, Alvaro Bermudez and Michael Johnson.
Set design is elegant and practical, with seamless moves that change the staging from a street scene to a dumpy backroom to an exquisite church. Ditto for costume designs.
Sister Act plays through July 21 in the Studio One Theatre on FAU’s Boca Raton campus, 777 Glades Road. Purchase tickets at www.fauevents.com or call 561-297-6124.