Review of Sister Act at The Muny

    Has The Muny ever had a better complete season than its 105th? Not in my three decades of covering the theater. Every show was inspired in both choice and execution. The most inspirational show of all may be the enormously joyous and touching production of Sister Act that closes the season.

    Based on the 1992 film of the same name, Sister Act features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane. Joseph Howard wrote the film script.

    The main character is Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer in Philadelphia whose gangster boyfriend, Curtis, runs a night club. After her stirring performance in the opening number, Curtis may be the only person in the theater who thinks Deloris isn’t ready to sing in his club.

    Fed up with how she is being treated, Deloris goes back to the club to break up with Curtis. She arrives just in time to see him murder one of his lackeys. Deloris hightails it the police station, where she runs into her high school classmate Eddie. She used to call him “Sweaty Eddie” because of how he reacted to stress. Now a police officer, he still has a crush on her.

    To keep Deloris safe, Eddie takes her to the unlikeliest place for Curtis to find her—a convent. It is part of a financially strapped church whose building is on the verge of being sold.

    Adapting to the regimented life in a religious community is no easy task for the free-spirited Deloris. She is immediately at loggerheads with the strict Mother Superior. Deloris finds her place, however, when she joins the convent choir, where she quickly becomes the leader.

    As a singing teacher, Deloris has only one peer in musical theater history—Maria in The Sound of Music. The difference between them is that the teacher Sister Act is only pretending to be a nun. The real nuns are the students. Deloris’s magical transformation of the choir changes everything for the convent, the church, and herself.

    The Muny staging has a cast of superb singing actors. After shining at the Muny five years ago as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, Bryonha Marie is equally brilliant in the radically different role of Deloris. Marie embodies not only the boisterousness that rankles the Mother Superior but also the charisma that wins over all the nuns.

    Mamie Parris is another Muny veteran returning triumphantly in a role that departs from her previous work. She makes it clear that a deep-seated commitment to her faith is at the heart of the Mother Superior’s resistance to Deloris. Parris evokes great sympathy for her character’s struggle to reconcile her own sense of order with the disorder Deloris brings into the convent.

    James T. Lane’s Eddie is far cry from Lane’s last Muny role, the supremely sophisticated and self-confident Billy Flynn in Chicago. Lane conveys Eddie’s insecurity under stress (particularly stress caused by Deloris) while establishing Eddie as a caring and competent officer. Alan H. Green’s Curtis is as arrogant as he is menacing. His bumbling henchmen bring welcome comic relief in the performances by Rob Colletti as Joey, Brandon Espinoza as Pablo, Darron Hayes as TJ.

    Thom Sesma is admired for highly praised work at both The Muny and The Rep. He returns to St. Louis in a masterly portrayal of Monsignor O’Hara. When Deloris’s music enraptures this serious, mild-mannered priest, there can be no doubt that the celebratory joy of the music is tapping into something real.

    Deloris’s profound effect on the people around her is demonstrated again when she inspires the diffident postulant, Mary Robert, to find her true self. Her story arc is totally convincing in Meredith Aleigha Wells’ deeply moving performance. A wheelchair user, Wells is a full and vibrant participant in the exhilarating choreography by director Denis Jones. The irresistible ebullience of Wells’ dancing on wheels is a powerful demonstration of inclusiveness making a show better for everyone.

    Another notable feature of Jones’s choreography is the integration of the ensemble and the youth ensemble into musical numbers that tap into the featured performer’s imagination. Under Michael Horsley’s music direction, the Muny orchestra is rousing throughout.

    In Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s scenic design, the huge backdrop on the booms is a fanciful evocation of the disco era. Openings on both sides of the backdrop are cleverly used to facilitate moving interior settings quickly into place when they are needed. The booms open for scenes in the church, which is represented just by the supporting structure so the audience has an unobstructed view of what happens inside.

    The sparkle of Leon Dobkowski’s costumes ratchets up in sync with the changes at the church engendered by Deloris. The show is enriched by Shelby Loera’s lighting, John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound, Kevan Loney’s video, and Kelley Jordan’s wigs.

    Sister Act continues at 8:15 p.m. through Sunday, August 20, at The Muny in Forest Park.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo © Phillip Hamer Photography
    Front row from the left, Bryonha Marie as Deloris, Meredith Aleigha Wells as Mary Robert, and Mamie Parris as Mother Superior in
    Sister Act.