Theater Review: Short North Stage Closes 2021 With Charming, Catchy ‘Sister Act’
Short North Stage caps a stellar run of returning to live performance in 2021 with a dazzling, delightful production of the Tony-nominated Sister Act, by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkneller (book, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane), Alan Menken (music), and Glenn Slater (lyrics) (based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle written by Joseph Howard) directed by Edward Carignan.
The Steinkellners keep the basic plot of struggling disco singer Deloris Van Cartier (Amber Knicole) witnessing her club owner/mobster boyfriend Curtis (Danté Banks Murray) murdering a suspected snitch. Her childhood friend turned cop, Eddie (Joshua Walker), places her in the Witness Protection Program at a Philadelphia convent under the gaze of a disapproving Mother Superior (Chrissy T). With a setting change to 1977/78, this Sister Act also serves as a revival of a favorite Short North Stage tradition of mine: disco-themed holiday shows – aided by the terrific costumes of Bottari & Case.
As someone who was a fan of Knicole’s band Mojoflo for years before ever seeing her act, this felt like a role tailor-made for her strengths, especially once I realized there was a disco/rare groove component. She explodes, sailing far over the high bar of my expectations. Menken and Slater have massive fun playing with the tropes of the era without ever using them as a crutch, every song here stands on its own with an added layer of fun for those of us who’ve ever binged on disco records.
The depth and electricity Knicole grants Deloris, and her deep musical knowledge, is exemplified in the three versions we see of “Take Me to Heaven.” That Menken/Slater song reinforces the often-discussed ties between gospel and R&B – the same feelings with a different focal point – from a slinky classic girl-group trio, with stellar backing from Lisa Glover (as Tina) and Mikaela Ray (as Michelle) in the opening, to leading the entire ensemble of nuns twice, in a show-stopping first act closer, and the moment on the news where the delight they bring to the community gives her location away to Curtis.
The show, and Carignan’s production, also use the fact that it’s the same song with a different perspective to reinforce one of the themes of the show, that we as people are better with one another. The terrific paean to female friendship woven through every stitch of Sister Act gets the seed planted in the first moment where, even before Deloris has the realization, we see her defer to her background singers/dancers, give them moments to shine, and have a playful backstage rapport with them that doesn’t hide they’re important. That gives extra fuel to the fire on songs that state that theme more directly, like the gorgeous “Raise Your Voice” when Deloris first sings with the ensemble – stellar throughout – and the eponymous second act tune.
Of course, that dynamic doesn’t work without equally well-drawn characters to build that chemistry and there isn’t a weak link in this cast. Chrissy T’s Mother Superior, often the antagonist, makes her feature “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” shine as she soars through its glistening melody and makes the character’s statement of purpose, her questioning, feel of a piece for the character. The other nuns Deloris is closest to stand out in similar relief: Sister Mary Robert (Sydney Freihofer), who also has a stunning solo on “The Life I Never Led,” and Sister Mary Patrick (a delightful Julie Russell) present the two sides of naïveté, and a hilarious Linda Kinnison Roth as Sister Mary Lazarus brings a droll seen-it-all wryness.
The features for the men in the cast make a big impression. Walker’s Eddie shines in the silky growl of “I Could Be That Guy,” full of charming self-deprecation. “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” a showcase for Jordan Stocksdale’s Joey, Carter Minor’s TJ, and Daniel Lopez’s Pablo – a classic Teddy Pendergrass-style wordplay slow jam that’s a classic example of how most of the songs here work as pastiche and stand on their own – easily shoots into the Top 5 pantheon of songs about (theoretically) seducing nuns and brought the house down the night I saw this.
If anyone’s having as much fun playing within the disco form as songwriters Menken and Slater, it’s music director Que Jones and choreographer Dionysia Williams. Jones manages craft tracks that feel as lush as the hits getting referenced with a tight six-piece band – Jones himself and Dee Saunders on keys, Tom Regouski on reeds, and the alternately crunchy and featherlight grooves of the rhythm section of Zsolt Dvornik on guitar, Sara Smith on bass and cello, and Jeff Jones on drums. More than once I was stunned at the amount and crystal clarity of sound they conjured up, without sacrificing that key amount of grit that makes that music stick.
Williams creates a language of movement for this world, full of delicate character touches and explosive group pieces, without suddenly making the nuns look like they’re trained dancers. Williams brings a special magic to characters who look great in movements on stage without disrupting the psychological reality the audience bought into. It was a centerpiece of Carrie and it’s just as vital to this zany romp.
If there are flaws in Sister Act, they come with pacing and time. At two and a half hours, it feels a little long for a light comedy. The second act loses some momentum with what feels like a series of back-to-back solos. But consolation for that slowdown is the solos are almost uniformly delightful. As we end a dark year flecked with consolations and magic, this stands among the magic.
Sister Act runs through January 2 with performances at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday (no 2 p.m. January 1) and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit shortnorthstage.org.