There’s some serious jiving going on at Toby’s Dinner Theater. No need to dress up too much- just grab your rosary and hymnal, and head out the door to Sister Act. It’s— yes, yes, wait for it- paradise.
Based on the original 1992 movie ‘Sister Act’ with Whoopie Goldberg, this Broadway version has a rollicking score by Alan Menken and wonderful tongue-in-cheek lyrics by Glen Slater, with a more romantic storyline enhanced by Cheri and Bill Steinkeller’s comedic book.
Unless you’ve been hiding in a storm cellar the last twenty years, you already know that Ms. Goldberg originated the role of Deloris van Cartier, a lounge singer who witnesses her mobster boyfriend commit murder. The movie is a comedy classic, and translates exceptionally well to musical form- after all, the basis for much of the movie’s comedy comes from Deloris hiding out from her boyfriend’s vengeance by pretending to be a nun in a cloistered convent, only to find her true calling as the nuns’ choir director. In the movie, the nuns’ renditions of sixties and seventies girl groups songs are some of the highlights of the film, so the segue to musical form is a natural one.
But here I admit I had my doubts initially- I’m a huge fan of the film, and without Ms Goldberg to carry the action, wondered if it would be just a watered down recreation of the film. Not to worry. The action has been substantially updated- or should I say retro-dated- moving the time of the original film from the early 1990s to the height of the 1970s era of big hair and cheesy attire. It’s a brainstorm idea that works beautifully, for the slightly thin characters benefit greatly, becoming more exaggerated (and funnier) in the process.
Take, for example, Deloris’ murderous boyfriend, originally played in the film as your standard revengeful mobster by Harvey Keitel. In the musical, he’s been transmogrified into a cheesier version of Ike Turner, complete with three dimwitted backup mobsters, and the comedy is more focused as a result. As played by DeCarlo Raspberry, Curtis Jackson is a wonderfully seedy sleazeball in his sharkskin jacket, and his song, “When I Find My Baby” is a wonderful sendup of gotta-get-that-girl boy group songs, complete with a grisly list of what he’ll do to the girl once he finds her. His henchmen, played with glee by Russell Sunday, Moses Bernal, and Tobias Young, have an equally ebullient song, “Lady in the Long Black Dress”, which virtually brought the house down the evening I attended.
As Deloris, Ashley Johnson has a spectacular voice, and her “Fabulous, Baby!”, sung as she imagines her somewhat tacky dreams of fame and fortune, is one of the best pieces of the evening.
The real standouts, though, are the supporting characters of Mother Superior, Eddie the cop, and Sister Mary Patrick. Lynne Sharp-Spears as Mother Superior has some of the driest dialogue in the show, and the best voice by far; her “I Haven’t Got A Prayer” is both funny and wistful, and provides some genuine feeling in the second act. Sister Mary Patrick, (Amy Haynes), both channels Kathy Najimy’s original portrayal and also gives it her own spin- she’s infectious when mesmerized by a mirror ball.
Robert Biederman 125, one of Toby’s excellent troupe of actors, continues in this show both as in Monsignor O’Hara and, where you will first see him, as the emcee for the evening, and really, he’s one of the reasons to go to Toby’s. He’s part warm up act, part Father Confessor and in no less part, the very heart and soul of the place. Watching him work the crowd is a joy.
Saving the best for last, as Eddie Souther, the cop who rescues Deloris and ultimately wins her heart, Hasani Allen is a director’s find- this actor has exquisite physical timing. Just watching him lean against a refrigerator or saunter into a room is to make one laugh- he doesn’t even need dialogue, this guy.
closes November 13, 2016
Details and tickets
So much of thie show is, pardon the pun, superior- Lawrence B Munsey’s direction is bright and with a sharp ear for comedy; the choreography by Mark Minnick is both grandly overdone and spare in the small space. You wouldn’t think you could get big, all-cast Busby Berkley moves in a small in-the-round space like Toby’s, but you’d be wrong, and Mr. Minnick gets away with it beautifully. Set and light design by David A Hopkins is equally tiptop, with subtle little details such as a trashcan fire for the dancing bums in “I Could Be That Guy”. And once again, the costumes by Lawrence B Munsey and Mary Quinn are above reproach. These two don’t seem to miss a trick. If it’s Seventies, they’ve found it, whether it be huge Afros for backup singers, ghastly printed patterns for the henchmen’s shirts, or anything in lamé– including the nuns’ finale habits- they’ve brought it all to Toby’s. A highlight is Eddie’s costume switcheroo from cop to Fake Elvis back to cop again- it’s lightning fast and unexpected– and funny in the extreme.
There are so many unexpected pleasures in this show, and a revamp to in the round works for all of it. Toby’s seems to specialize in finding little hidden gems within the confines of established shows, and the professionalism and skills of the artists who work there continues to amaze.
To conclude: 70s Kitsch combined with Singing Nuns equals a Heavenly Evening. Well, somebody had to say it!
Sister Act . Music: Alan Menken . Lyrics: Glenn Slater . Book: Cheri and Bill Steinkellner . Director: Lawrence B. Munsey . Musical Direction/Orchestrations: Ross Scott Rawlings . Choreography: Mark Minnick . Costumes: Lawrence B. Munsey and Mary Quinn . Set and Lighting Design: David A Hopkins . Sound Design: Mark Smedley .
Cast: Ashley Johnson as Deloris Van Cartier; Samantha McEwan Deininger as Tina; Ashley K Nicholas as Michelle; DeCarlo Raspberry as Curtis Jackson; Russell Sunday as Joey; Moses Bernal as Pablo; Tobias Yooung as TJ; Jeffrey shankle as Ernie; Hasani Allen as Eddie Souther; Andre Hinds as Cop; Lynn Sharp-Spears as Mother Superior; Robert Biederman 125 as Monsignor O’Hara; Amy Haynes as Sister Mary Patrick; Teresa Dansky as Sister Mary Rober; Lynne Sigler as Sister Mary Lazarus; Jane C Boyle as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours
Ensemble: Mary Kate Broulliet; Coby Kay Callahan; Erica Clare; Samantha McEwan Deininger; Andre Hinds; David Jennings; Rachel Kemp; Santina Maiolatesi; Darren McDonnell; Ashley Nicholas; Elizabeth Rayca; Jeffrey Shankle
Produced by: Toby’s Dinner Theater . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.