Of the seemingly infinite binaries into which the world can be divided, a telling one for theater-going audiences is those who are drawn to musicals that feature singing nuns and those who must be dragged kicking and screaming to such shows. This critic falls squarely in the latter camp.
The prospect of a community theater production of Sister Act, the 2011 Broadway musical based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie in which a nightclub singer unwillingly dims her glitzy shine and trades her big hair and tall boots for a nun’s habit in witness protection at a convent after she stumbled upon a murder, was daunting.
However, the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre production of this show, though riddled with predictable schtick, is surprisingly winning and brought a packed house to its feet for a standing ovation and some moving and grooving to the music. Thanks to outstanding direction, talent and hugely impressive design, this Sister Act exceeds expectations and then some.
That’s despite working with a book (Cheri and Bill Steinkeller and Douglas Carter Beane) that’s uninspired and could use some editing, and music (Alan Menken, known primarily for the doo-wop score for Little Shop of Horrors) that’s catchy yet not terribly memorable. The story is set in 1970s Philadelphia and the score, primarily inspired by disco, soul and funk, certainly is reminiscent of Philly soul.
James C. Carver, who spent nearly 40 years at the Kalamazoo Civic — half of which as managing director credited with helping the theater blossom into one of the most notable community theaters in the country — returned to Kalamazoo to direct this show. And its grandiosity is fit for the king that he is around here.
With a cast of nearly 30 and too many set changes to count, the stage is always full and busy, yet never chaotic. The big numbers bring down the house, and the virtuoso performances leave us aching for more. Georgie Reigel’s choreography is comprised of recognizable ‘70s moves such as the disco finger and iterations of the bus stop and electric slide, though it’s mostly armography and moving in formation around the stage for the nuns whose dance abilities vary widely, and it works; and the solo performers, particularly the men, really bust a move.
But more than anything, this show is about the singing, and Music Director Cindy Hunter not only conducts a truly terrific live orchestra, she draws the most out of the singers and creates marvelous build throughout the show and within each number. The effect is powerful, especially in big ensemble numbers such as “Raise Your Voice” and “Take Me to Heaven,” as well as some truly stunning solos.
Christie Lee Coleman is a delightful, sweet and bright-faced Deloris, and though this makes her transformation from gritty sexy nightclub singer to nun less of a dramatic arc, she’s wonderful in the role. She sings like a dream with a rich, soulful voice that also effortlessly slips into higher ranges, and she moves beautifully. Her performance is a joy.
Donna Willoughby’s Mother Superior isn’t nearly as stern as one would hope, but her soprano is lovely. Gary Willoughby gets a lot of laughs as Monsignor O’Hara even if he’s more bumbling than the role calls for and his timing, at times, slows down scenes that should zip by.
Allie Ruppert’s Sister Mary Robert blossoms beautifully. She has one of the strongest voices on stage and embodies the profound transformation, crisis of faith, and coming into her own of the character’s arc. Her rendition of “The Life I’ve Never Led” is a highlight in this show of big numbers.
And though the ensemble of nuns captures their naivety and spiritedness as well as the individual characters when the script calls for it, generating enormous energy and delighting the audience, there’s one performer whose virtuosity is so stunning it nearly takes your breath away.
Este’ Fan Kizer’s acting, singing and dancing simply leaves you longing for the next time he’ll make an entrance. No doubt his Lou Rawls-inspired “I Could Be that Guy” will one night lead to spontaneous screams of delight and panties from the audience being tossed onstage. He hits all the right notes in all the right ways, from the deepest bass to the sweetest falsetto, and the desire he exudes inspires the same in others. Over the course of the show he shifts from awkward slapsticky rookie cop to smooth operator knight-in-shining-armor. And he does so without ever becoming cartoonish. He’s simply marvelous.
The largesse of these performances is matched by production quality in terms of technical design and execution. David Khyn’s amazing sets shift from nightclubs to street scenes to a police station to the interior of a gothic cathedral to a confessional with the use of a moving platform, raised curtains and scrims, and projected images with downright seamless transitions between them. AnneMarie Miller’s lighting and sound design, too, seamlessly support the overall concept and effect, and Barbara B. Moelaart’s dazzling costumes shape and create character as well as time and place.
Sometimes a production is so masterful, it makes you like it despite yourself. To be in the presence of the Kalamazoo Civic’s Sister Act is to be humbled by the power of its ensemble cast and crew, and the vision and guidance of its directors to create something so huge it’s hard to believe it emerged from a community theater.
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
329 S. Park St., Kalamazoo
Through May 26