Mercury Theater Chicago returns with SISTER ACT — and it’s pure musical theater elation. This “Joyful, Joyful” (SISTER ACT II reference intended) production, with direction from Reneisha Jenkins and choreography by Mercury’s new Artistic Director Christopher Chase Carter, meets the goal of delighting audiences. This is musical theater that’s designed to entertain and not make audiences think too deeply, and Mercury’s production capitalizes on the show’s capacity for fun. While the material is not at all serious, the talent in this company is stacked, and the actors take their responsibility to deliver this fun seriously.
Based on the 1992 film and featuring music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, SISTER ACT centers on Philadelphia nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier (Alexis J. Roston). After witnessing nightclub owner (and her sometimes lover) Curtis (Denzel Tsopnang) murder one of his lackeys, Deloris must go into hiding. Aided by her former high school classmate and police officer Eddie (Gilbert Domally), Deloris goes into hiding in the most unusual of spots: A convent. There, she encounters her polar opposite, the somber Mother Superior (Jane Grebeck-Brewer) and finds an unexpected project: Guiding the nuns (all named Mary) into solving their church choir woes.
Mercury’s production of SISTER ACT is raucous and glittering. Roston makes Deloris a real diva, but never a cartoon. Her powerful voice and unique tone add dimension to the character; Roston owns the stage whether she’s leading her signature nightclub number “Take Me to Heaven,” espousing her greatness in “Fabulous, Baby!” or having a more vulnerable moment in the show’s title song.
This staging also taps into SISTER ACT’s capacity for humor. Tspognang brings down the house with his number “When I Find My Baby.” The number’s not nearly as sweet as it sounds, and he’s supported with tongue-in-cheek backing vocals and choreography by Joey (Marcus Jackson), TJ (Austin Nelson Jr.), and Pablo (Ruben Castro). The number’s best described as JERSEY BOYS with a sadistic twist, and every moment of it is brilliant. Domally also makes Eddie’s solo number “I Could Be That Guy” rather comical, and Marquecia Jordan displays a magnificent feat of costume design for it. While lyrically this song is a typical “sweet, sincere love interest” number, Domally leans into the humor and adds more texture.
As a whole, the ensemble of nuns at the convent are heartwarming and vocally gifted. Though they’re skilled at pretending to sing poorly, Diana Lawrence’s music direction allows the performers to shine once that facade is lifted, and the nuns become a singing sensation under Deloris’s direction. Leah Morrow lends her signature brand of humor to the role of the wacky Mary Patrick, and Isabella Andrews is charming as the painfully shy young nun Mary Robert. Andrews comes into her own (as does, of course, the character) in her big solo number “The Life I Never Led.” For Slater and Menken, this represents some of the strongest character storytelling in all of SISTER ACT. This song has a clear sense of purpose and development for Mary Robert’s character arc. Kudos must also be given to Nicole Armold, who essays several different roles and has probably a dozen quick changes in this show. Armold is quite literally doing the most, and she handles all of her roles beautifully. She’s a compelling performer, and she steps up to all her tasks with grace.
While SISTER ACT is overall an upbeat delight and Mercury makes the most of that, the show itself could use some judicious cuts (as could most contemporary musicals based upon films). If I could put my dramaturg hat on, I think the show could do without the second act song “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” in which Joey, TJ, and Pablo imagine how they would try to seduce the nuns. Likewise, Mother Superior’s solo “Haven’t Got a Prayer” seems an unnecessary overextension of her discontent with Deloris. Overall, SISTER ACT could pick up the pace by cutting a few numbers and letting audiences experience all the joy it can offer in a more succinct manner. And while those numbers seem like easy cuts, that’s in no way to discredit Mercury’s performers who deliver them wonderfully. Jackson, Nelson, and Castro are a right “Three Musketeers” of comedy, and Grebeck-Brewer is a compelling vocalist. I reference these numbers more so as demonstrations of the fact that SISTER ACT’s pacing sometimes gets in the way of its capacity to truly delight and not overstay its welcome.
All together, Mercury’s SISTER ACT is a celebratory and charming return for the theater company. It’s the definition of a musical theater fun time, and that kind of feel-good moment — especially one that’s so well-executed — is one I applaud heartily.
SISTER ACT runs through January 2, 2022 at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Tickets are $35-$80. Visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Photo Credit: Brett Beiner
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com