Slow Burn Theatre Company’s rousing production of the stirring and funny stage musical adaptation of “Sister Act” is, to borrow a title from one of the show’s songs, “Fabulous, Baby!”
Under director Patrick Fitzwater’s sensitive and nuanced direction, the cast members succeed at conveying the characters’ humanity. In addition, they produce a joyously infectious sound as they spiritedly sing the show’s heavenly score, ably accompanied by recorded tracks. Further, the performers dance animatedly and in sync with each other under the guidance of choreographer Trent Soyster. The choreography includes some nifty physical moves — watch for the spins.
Undoubtedly, the cast members are triple threats who make you forget that they are performing. And the behind-the-scenes designers are skilled artists who contribute just as much to the production’s success.
You have until Sunday, Feb. 18 to experience the production, which runs roughly two-and-a-half hours, including an intermission.
“Sister Act” the stage musical is an adaptation of the hit 1992 film with the same title, which famous starred Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith.
The show centers on a struggling night club lounge singer named Delores Van Cartier. After she witnesses a murder committed by her boyfriend, Curtis (Chaz Rose), police place her at a location where they think the suspect will never find her – a convent.
At first, Van Cartier reluctantly remains there; the nuns’ rigid and secluded lifestyle is hardly what she’s used to. But as time passes, Van Cartier becomes useful as the convent’s new choir director. She transforms the choir from an old-fashioned, out-of-tune group of singers to a dynamic, harmonious, and modern-sounding ensemble which re-energizes the struggling church and its community. Soon, word spreads about the new and improved choir, which is invited to perform for the Pope. But with the publicity that comes with such news, is Van Cartier safe from the suspect and his goons?
If you are a fan of the film, you will be happy to learn that the live stage musical adaptation is faithful to its source material. But the live show, which takes place in 1977 Philadelphia, is hardly a replica of the movie. Rather, the play improves upon the compelling film.
For instance, the live show features bright songs that beautifully capture mood and allow the characters to express themselves on a deeper level. The score’s musical styles include soul, funk, and disco. By the way, the score is by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), the same team that provided music for shows such as Disney's “The Little Mermaid.”
In addition to the energetic and effective score, the stage musical adaptation provides extra incentive for police officer Eddie Souther (David L. Murray Jr.) to protect Van Cartier (Mandi Jo John) from the bad guys. To their credit, librettists Bill and Cheri Steinkellner deepened Souther’s character from the film by giving him a song titled “I Could Be That Guy.” In it, he expresses a desire to be somebody other than his nervous, awkward self.
“Sweaty Eddie! All of my life, that’s what they called me, and that’s what I’ve been,” the character sings. “The blur in the background, the king of uncool. The first at the office, the last in the pool.”
Instead, “I could be the dude all in white, bathed in light on the floor. Livin’ out loud as the crowd shouts for more!”
Souther certainly wants to move on from his days of being “Sweaty Eddie.” And in the role, Murray believably conveys his character’s drive to be somebody different. As part of a fine performance, the actor exudes credible nervous energy and determination.
Souther is not the only character in the musical who wants something more from life. Another is the young Sister Mary Robert. When we first encounter this nun, who was abandoned as a baby and raised at the convent, she is quiet, shy, and timid. But as the show progresses, she emerges from her “shell.” Specifically, she becomes an assertive young woman who bears her soul in the song “The Life I Never Led.”
With an intense facial expression, a strong, clear voice, fire in her eyes, and her hands on her heart, Mikayla Cohen holds nothing back while not only singing, but vividly expressing the emotions behind the song. It is as though she is releasing years of pent-up emotion and frustration. Cohen delivers a bravura performance, for sure. Her Sister Mary Robert is nothing like the stereotypical nun with a stern face and a ruler.
Meanwhile, the Mother Superior is also a well-developed character rather than a stereotype or caricature. And Paulette Oliva humanizes this commanding yet vulnerable and questioning woman. She also nails comic timing, which includes a perfect deadpan expression.
Clearly, this character is used to the old-fashioned ways of doing things within the Catholic Church. In particular, she’s used to hymns sung traditionally and reverently. Suddenly, in walks Van Cartier (whom the Mother Superior names Sister Mary Clarence).
In addition to finding one’s purpose in life and dealing with people who are different than you, one of the themes that “Sister Act” tackles is change. And the Mother Superior is having a hard time dealing with it. She’s kind of like “Fiddler on the Roof’s” Tevye, trying to hold onto tradition in a changing world.
Kudos to Oliva, who portrays the Mother Superior authoritatively but modestly, particularly during the song “Haven’t Got a Prayer.” Like the fictional Rev. Shaw Moore does in the song “Heaven Help Me” from “Footloose,” the Reverend Mother addresses the Lord in “Haven’t Got a Prayer.”
She sings: “I got Disco piped unto the cloister, I got glitter wherever you gaze, I got celibate nuns out there shaking their buns shrieking you and your son’s holy praise. I got altar boys prancing in silver lame, Requiem Mass with a strobe light display. Lord, if you’re testing my faith, may I say it’s not fair with everything I’ve got.”
Oliva sounds more peaceful and calm when her Mother Superior sings “Here Within These Walls.” The song, which is less lively than some of the other numbers, describes the convent’s simplicity and dignity.
In the film, Smith portrayed the Mother Superior while Goldberg embodied Van Cartier. In Slow Burn’s production of the musical, John brings her own brand of sass, outspokenness, and charisma to the role of Van Cartier. In addition, a vivacious John radiates joy and reverence at appropriate times (picture Della Reese in “Touched by an Angel”). Finally, John’s Van Cartier is caring and sincere. She becomes a woman who has figured out her place in life and is at peace with herself.
While performers playing the lead roles excel, a fine supporting cast also triumphs. It includes Natasha Ricketts as a perky Sister Mary Patrick, Ryan Crout as Joey, a goon with a bad boy persona, and Matthew W. Korinko as a reverential and polished priest.
Chaz Rose as the menacing boyfriend, Curtis, however, could be more threatening in his role.
The actors perform on scenic designer Sean McCleland’s realistic-looking and detailed sets. Also, behind the scenes, lighting designer Clifford Spulock smartly uses hues and degrees of intensity to the production’s advantage. At times, the lighting instruments seem to be in motion, and thus lend the proceedings an extra amount of vibrancy.
Costume coordinator Rick Pena’s clothing is varied and character appropriate. Often, the actors seem to change clothing. For instance, as choir members become more modern and energized, they change from traditional black and white nuns’ outfits to different colored robes.
Slow Burn amazes anew with each show it stages. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the company won Carbonell's 2023 Bill von Maurer Award. The honor recognizes a theater company that “exemplifies excellence for the totality of its programming: productions, educational outreach, developmental programs, and audiences served.”
Unquestionably, it’s an award that is well-deserved.
Slow Burn Theatre Company’s production of Sister Act runs through Sunday, Feb. 18 at the Amaturo Theater within the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The address is 201 SW Fifth Ave. in Ft. Lauderdale. Tickets start at $54. For more information, go to (954) 462-0222, www.browardcenter.org or www.slowburntheatre.org.