Porthouse Theatre performs minor miracle with its ‘Sister Act’
By Bob Abelman
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when nuns became fun. It may have started with the 1985 creation of “Nunsense,” which, along with many sequels, turned singing and dancing sisters into a musical comedy franchise.
So it was no surprise that the 1992 nun-on-the-run motion picture “Sister Act” was turned into a Broadway musical, given that the film starred comedian Whoopi Goldberg, featured music by Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid”), witty lyrics by Glenn Slater (“School of Rock”), clever repartee by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (TV’s “Cheers”) and one-liners by shtickmeister Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu”).
Like the film, the musical tells the tale of Deloris Van Cartier, a wannabe nightclub diva whose life takes a turn when she witnesses a murder and the cops hide her in a down-on-its-luck, inner-city convent. Disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, she finds herself at odds with the cloistered lifestyle but manages to use her talents to save the local church. While helping tone-deaf choir members find their voices, Dolores finds her own.
For its retrofitting from screen to stage, the location was changed from Reno to Philly, the timeline shifted from 1992 to 1977, and the soundtrack was inspired by soulful, period rhythm ’n’ blues and disco.
The short-lived show received five 2011 Tony Award nominations — it won none — and was called “tame, innocuous and frankly a little dull” by The New York Times. Its national tour, which came through Cleveland in 2013, lived up to the press and was a huge disappointment.
Despite that legacy, the production staged at Porthouse Theatre hits on all cylinders.
It’s a musical theater miracle more accurately attributed to the creative invention of director Eric van Baars than to divine intervention.
As if to compensate for or distract from the often-mediocre material, the original and touring productions of “Sister Act” filled the stage with high-octane staging complete with towering stained glass walls, looming statues of saints and elaborate, eye-candy costuming. At Porthouse, van Baars simply fills the parquet floor and sparsely set performance space with talent.
His gifted cast mines every funny line and tender moment in the script, embellishes but never overplays the lovable and quirky qualities of the archetypal characters featured in the film, and soldiers through the script’s less memorable moments. And every member of this sizable ensemble executes Kelly Meneer’s playful, ’70s-era choreography with boundless energy.
But mostly, they sing the heck out of the song list, beautifully accompanied by 10 musicians under Jennifer Korecki’s superb direction.
The jubilant gospel number “Raise Your Voice,” the show-stopping “Take Me to Heaven” and the finale, “Spread the Love Around,” showcase the members of the cloister, featuring the wonderful Hannah Quinn as jocular Sister Mary Patrick, Katelyn Langwith as mousy Mary Robert, Terri Kent as sarcastic Sister Mary Lazarus, along with Bernadette Hisey, Jess Tanner, Kristen Hoffman, Emily Kline, Abby Morris, Katey Sheehan, Lindsay Simon, Michaella Waickman and Emma Wichhart. Their “It’s Good to be a Nun,” sung when first introduced to Deloris, is hilarious.
The immense charm generated by Tracee Patterson, as the disapproving Mother Superior, and Tyrell Reggins, as Eddie the kindly policeman, are best on display in her “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” and his tender “I Could Be That Guy.” Also charming is Rohn Thomas as Monsignor O’Hara, who sells Mother Superior on the witness protection program and becomes one of Deloris’ biggest fans.
Joey, Pablo and TJ, the inept bad guys, are given their own novelty number, “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” which Jim Bray, Jimmy Ferko and William Tipton perform with abandon and riotously smarmy sex appeal. They are just as funny as backup dancers during head henchman Curtis’ “When I Find My Baby,” which Jim Weaver delivers with the perfect balance of sensuality and sadism.
These performances and the seamless execution of this show by its designers, crew and altar boys are more than sufficient to erase any negative impressions one might harbor from the touring production. But Coleen Longshaw’s winning personality and pitch-perfect vocals in the lynchpin role of Deloris will seal the deal. She is flat-out sensational in everything she does on stage.
Longshaw is so good she will make you wish that the creators of “Sister Act” would consider turning “Sister Act 2” into a musical, just so it could be performed at Porthouse Theatre with Longshaw in the lead. CV
WHAT: “Sister Act”
WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls
WHEN: Through July 2
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $36, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 20, 2016.
Lead image: Colleen Longshaw as singer Deloris Van Cartier. PHOTO | Bob Christy