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Wednesday, September 06, 2023

This (Sister) Act at Toby’s Never Gets Old

If you prayed for a top-notch musical to kick off the fall season, then your prayers have been answered. Sister Act makes its return to Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia under new direction with several leads and cast members reprising their roles from the 2016 iteration. The show’s themes of humanity, hope, faith and sisterhood, and the message that people can change for the better if given the right environment and support never gets old.  

Helmed by Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, this slick production at Toby’s is as good as it gets. Mr. Minnick, who also choreographs the intricate, well-executed dance numbers, is blessed with a sterling cast whose vocals soar, works damn (oops, sorry) hard, and has a lot of fun entertaining for an appreciative audience.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, Sister Act is based on the successful 1992 movie of the same name that starred Whoopi Goldberg.   The musical production opened on Broadway in 2011 and received five Tony Award nominations. The prolific Menken is best known for his composing such stalwarts as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors and Newsies, to name a few.

There is an abundance of comedy that will keep you laughing heartily. The up-tempo songs are toe-tapping with some powerfully delivered ballads in the mix.  The influence of disco, Philly soul and gospel is evident in Mr. Menken’s score. A few of the songs are of the show-stopping variety and are performed exceptionally by the skilled vocalists.  Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra (he alternates with Nathan Scavilla) is well-balanced in support of the performers without overpowering them.

Set in 1977 Philadelphia, the Whoopi Goldberg in this production is Ashley Johnson-Moore as Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring disco diva who ends up in hiding at a convent at the urging of police desk chief Eddie Souther (Gerald Jordan) when her married club-owning gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (Ryan Holmes) and three buffoon-like accomplices Joey, Pablo and TJ (Jordan B. Stockdale, Brian Dauglash, and Anwar Thomas, respectively) find out she’s squealed to the cops about his murdering one of his cronies.  Curtis is hell-bent (sorry again) to find her.

At the convent, Deloris meets up with the rigid, no-nonsense Mother Superior (Lynn Sharp-Spears) where their backgrounds, personalities and religious values clash but mostly in a light manner laced with sarcasm.  Deloris brings to the convent her streetwise persona, plenty of sass, and an irreverent view of religion and is frustrated by the convent’s restricting rules.

She also brings a ton of singing talent to help the other sisters transform their hapless choir into one that is adding more folks to the pews and more dollars to the collection plate, which are needed to make necessary repairs.  Throughout her stay at the convent,she never loses her dream to be a big-time singer.

Moreover, Deloris finds the meaning of true friendship as she engages with the other sisters.  From them Deloris ultimately finds a higher purpose to her life and that ultimately they are not much different from her.

David A. Hopkins’ imaginative set design converts the in-the-round stage to a realistic convent and church chapel atmosphere. To be sure, there are other scene locales like bars and a disco that require a bevy of props and set pieces, but the design for the convent and church truly excels.   

Stained glass windows along the walls of the theater in addition to well-placed candles, projection screens and even a faux church organ take the audience inside these hallowed walls. Numerous set pieces are employed that include tables, chairs, pews, bars, a piano, beds, swinging doors, lighted pillars among them add much texture to the scenes. The staging for the scene changes with all of these set pieces involved is thoroughly smooth and seamless. Lynn Joslin’s lighting design is magnificent and augments the scene changes to perfection.

"...this slick production at Toby’s is as good as it gets." 

Dammit, those fabulous costumes! (ugh, there I go again.)  Sarah King and Carrie Seidman fitted the cast in stunning attire. Tight disco dresses, various sets of habits for the sisters (black, white and red), colorful gowns for the choir boys, pajamas, and polyester suits present enormous visual appeal to the audience.

Without question, Helen Hayes nominee Ms. Johnson-Moore (Memphis, The Wiz, The Color Purple) as Deloris turns in a star-quality performance as she did during the 2016 Toby’s production.  She offers the right amount of impudence in her dialogue, showcases her comedic skills with spot-on timing and body language, and Lord, can she sing!

Commanding a rich soprano voice, Ms. Johnson-Moore excels from the opening numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby” to “Raise Your Voice” and “Sister Act.”

The romantic interest is “Sweaty Eddie” Souther, played by Gerald Jordan, a klutzy policeman whom she knew in high school.  Eddie is assigned to protecting her from Curtis.  His big song “I Could Be that Guy” is strong and emotional and well-delivered.  That number is enhanced by a wonderful double-breakaway costume.

As the deadpan Mother Superior, Ms. Sharp-Spears reprises her role and is the perfect foil for Deloris.  Their exchanges provide many of the laughs in the show with each feeding off each other with well-timed retorts. “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” ably displays Ms. Sharp-Spears’ solid soprano voice and her amazing ability to hold a note. Ms. Sharp-Spears is excellent throughout.

Ryan Holmes as the show’s antagonist Curtis shines in “When I Find My Baby” aided by his three aforementioned cohorts.  He repeats that number in the second act as a solo very movingly demonstrating his rich baritone vocals.

A young apostolate in the convent, Sister Mary Robert, played tenderly by MaryKate Brouillet, takes the leap from being shy to confident thanks to her bonding with Deloris.  Her soaring performance of “The Life I Never Led” that depicts this discovery is one of the production’s highlights.

The remainder of the company supports the leads effectively in the musical numbers with their vocals and dancing.  Mr. Minnick’s creative choreography is exemplified in such songs as “When I Find My Baby,” “I Could Be That Guy,” “Sunday Morning Fever,” and in the revival-like finale, the reprise of “Raise Your Voice.” Another favorite of mine is “Lady in the Long Black Dress” performed by Jordan B. Stockdale, Brian Dauglash, and Anwar Thomas.

Other notable performers include the comedic Robert Biedermann as Monsignor O’Hara, David James as Ernie, Valerie Adams Rigsbee as Sister Mary Patrick, Lynne Sigler as Sister Mary Lazarus, and Jane C. Boyle as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours.

Rounding out the company are Jeffrey Shankle, Patricia “Pep” Targete, Asia-Ligé Arnold, Adrienne Athanas, Brandon Bedore, Tina Marie DeSimone, Lydia Gifford, and Patrick Gover. The male swing is Angelo Harrington II, and the female swings are Amanda Kaplan Landstrom and Alexis Krey-Bedore.

Sister Act is an enjoyable, well-staged, uplifting musical with a solid score, stunning visuals, an amazing cast and crew under expert direction. Praise the Lord, it will surely entertain you. Don’t miss it. Your prayers will be answered. Amen!

Advisory: Strobe lighting and fog effects.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Sister Act runs through November 5, 2023, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

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