Musicals tend to be fairy tales, fantasies that we wish would come true. We don’t expect our musicals to be realistic; we do hope that they will be entertaining, teach us a lesson or two, but most of all send us back to the world energized. We willingly suspend disbelief along the road to enjoyment.
Sister Act, a musical based on the hit 1992 film, takes more suspension of disbelief than most of its compatriots. But, despite a slow start, some catchy tunes and big production numbers manage to win over audiences. And, San Diego Musical Theatre uses the intimacy of its venue to aid in the winning-over process.
The story takes a bit of time to get going, mainly because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Deloris Van Cartier (Miriam Dance), the stage name of an aspiring disco singer, witnesses a crime and must hide out until the culprit (Berto Fernandez) can be caught and she can testify in court. A high school friend turned police officer (Jeremy Whatley) arranges to hide her with a group of nuns in financial trouble. The Mother Superior (Sandy Campbell) is skeptical about the deal, but her superior, Monsignor O’Hara (Jim Chovick) persuades her to give it a go.
Of course, the irrepressible Deloris can’t be contained, and soon she not only has the nuns singing as if they were appearing in The Sound of Music, but she gets them excited about putting some of her trademark disco version of Motown into their worship services. People start packing the church, and everyone’s riding high until the bad guy and his minions (E.Y. Washington, Donny Gersonde, and Gerardo Flores Tonella) see Deloris on TV and plot an attack. Meanwhile, Deloris and her nun friends (Sarah Errington, Bethany Slomka, Susan Stuber, Eve Jack, Kat Fitzpatrick, Lenelle Wylie, Katie Gucik, Holly Echsner, Erin Vanderhyde, Audrey Eytchison, Cindy Alfonso, and Dani Gonzalez) have some things to teach each other about both hiding from the spiritual and hiding from life.
The cast features veterans who anchor the show for quite a few fresh faces. Chief among the vets are Ms. Campbell and Mr. Chovick, who play their own parts in a way that encourages their colleagues respond with nuance. There are also several cast members (particularly Ms. Errington, Ms. Slomka, and Ms. Stuber, as well as Mr. Chovick) who performed in the 2016 Moonlight Stage Productions version of Sister Act, and they successfully handle the major acting and musical duties.
The creative team takes advantage of the small size of the Horton Grand Theatre to generate audience enthusiasm. Mathys Herbert’s scenic design allows cast members to play at the front of the stage while another scene is being set behind them. Director Larry Raben never lets the pace flag, and frequent performer Luke Harvey Jacobs steps into the choreographer role and provides simple but effective dance moves that fill the stage with “nun glitz.” Musical director Don LeMaster does especially good work with group numbers: the three “minions” get their own song (“Lady in the Long Black Dress”) where they wow the audience by switching off on the falsetto part; and the closing number, “Spread the Love Around,” where the cast sings multiple lines at once and makes each line clear while fitting them together niftily.
In fact, Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s music and lyrics more than make up for the weak story line and the principals, Ms. Dance, Ms. Campbell, Mr. Whatley, as the police-officer-turned-romantic-lead, and Ms. Errington, each shine in their solo spots.
Sister Act isn’t a great musical, but you can dance to it (and, the audience comes pretty close). It runs through May 26.
Performs Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 2:00 PM. Tickets are priced $30 – $70. The Horton Grand Theatre is located in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego, where parking is typically hard to find and can be very expensive. There is a garage across the street from the theatre, however.
Additional cast members include Reanne Acasio, Jasmine January, Trevor Rex, and Kyle Leatherbury. Additional creative team members include Book: Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane, Lighting Design: Michelle Miles, Sound Design: Jon Fredette, Costume Design: Janet Pitcher, and Wig & Hair Design: Peter Herman.
This review is based on the April 28, 2019, performance.