Nuns get down, and raise your spirits: Sister Act at MacEwan’s snazzy new theatre

Sister Act, starring Chariz Faulmino, at MacEwan University’s new Triffo Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s something pretty sweet about christening a new theatre with a musical that includes an all-inclusive singing benediction like the one you’ll hear in Act II of Sister Act:

“Bless the songs we’re gonna sing./ Bless the stage that we’ll stand on/ When we stand and do our thing….” sing Deloris and a convent full of nuns. They go on to salute everything from the props to the costumes, the lights and the soundboard, the amps and, hey, the audience. Odes to the collaborative nature of theatre, production to performance, don’t come more detailed.

Sister Act, the 2011  musical fashioned from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, is not only a rare opportunity to see nuns in their pjs laying down the boogie (as the song goes), it’s our first chance to see (and hear) MacEwan University’s elegantly tiered, curvaceous new 415-seat Triffo Theatre in full showbiz mode. Which is to say packed to the rafters with people in the seats and a big-cast Broadway musical rocking onstage — and all the trimmings including a 12-piece band that seems to float above proceedings in a crimson box as if it’s just touched down from that great big musical theatre venue in the sky.

When I toured the new proscenium theatre last March, the seats were still plastic-wrapped. I can report that unwrapped, they welcome the posterior and (as overheard at intermission) a great variety of human shapes and sizes. In the two wrap-around balcony galleries, the seats are in a single row — and they swivel. I’ve checked out seats at every level (except the gallery seats closest to the stage), and the sight lines are splendid everywhere I sat.

You enter from the main floor in the airy five-story atrium, criss-crossed with apparently floating staircases. So far your intermission refreshment possibilities are limited to two machines, one for pop, one for chips, plus a drinking fountain (major queues for all of the above). But it’s a potentially festive space that will eventually be attached to a cafe on the southwest corner of Allard Hall.

But I digress. Back to the beautiful Triffo, where Jim Guedo’s highly entertaining  student (and MacEwan alumnae) production of Sister Act is testing the state-of-the-art resources of the new theatre with screens and projections, set pieces from above, turntables (set design by Melissa Cuerrier), big sound (Wade Staples), Scott Peters’ glitzy lighting, and zestfully inventive period choreography (Jacqueline Pooke) for a cast of about two dozen.

In a fundamental way the choreography, the lighting, the catchy ‘70s- style songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are the narrative: Sister Act, after all, is all about a double-sided conversion into musical theatre performance. Guedo’s production is all over that thought.

We follow the fortunes of Deloris Van Cartier (Chariz Faulmino, who’s a veritable human sparkler), an aspiring disco diva in ‘70s Philadelphia who has the bad luck to witness her mobster boyfriend (Damon Pitcher) ice a guy. It’s witness protection with wimple: she hides out under wraps in a convent — disrupting the strict regime of the Mother Superior (Kristi Hansen, a MacEwan grad of yore), kvetching about the “penguin dress,” incredulous there isn’t a smoking section. “Let he who is without sin get stoned first.”

The irrepressible Deloris kickstarts the pious (and tuneless) sisterhood to get down with Philly soul, r&b and disco. “Ride the groove/ boogie till you feel your spirit move,” they sing in Sunday Morning Fever. And, lo and behold!, the long-empty pews start to fill, much to the delight of the Monsignor (Tim Yakimec, another distinguished MacEwan alumnus, and now artistic director of Edmonton Opera).

Amusingly, he starts to sound more and more like a Vegas hustler. “If you see one Roman Catholic mass this season, let this be the one!” The book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with additions by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, is peppered with lines like that.

There is, of course, something perennially irresistible about the sight of nuns in full black and white regalia getting fabulous and shaking their booty — an old joke but an eternal one. And the group numbers, like It’s Good To Be A Nun, have a rousing, contagious spirit to them.

Jackie Kucey as the ebullient Sister Mary Patrick and Stephanie Swensrude as the sardonic Sister Mary Lazarus are particularly striking. And as the convent’s postulant, Bella King really lands a terrific musical theatre-type song of unsurpassing wistfulness-turned-resolve, The Life I Never Led. As the Mother Superior, whose disapproval is delivered in a series of wry wisecracks, Hansen, a Teatro La Quindicina star, is excellent. 

If Deloris has a caffeinating effect on the convent house choreography, she too is transformed by the experience of going undercover. Her exhibitionist soloist ambition (Fabulous, Baby!) gets tempered by an ensemble sister act spirit — a development that speaks to a theatre school with a brand new theatre. Take Me To Heaven, Deloris’s Donna Summer-esque anthem at the outset, gets a reprise that’s more like gospel by the end.

Meanwhile the mobster’s thugs — played by Josh Travnik, Anthony Hurst and Ricky Rivera — get a very funny rock trio number, Lady In The Long Black Dress, executed in hilarious ‘70s moves, where they predict that no nun will ever be able to hold out against them.

The plot is giddy, and the musical is put together by Broadway experts who aren’t departing from formula. At a theatre school that specializes in the multiple demands of musical theatre, in a spanky new downtown theatre, a musical about the impulse to reach out, find an audience, and raise the rafters is on the money.

“Jump in … that is what your spirit is for,” sing the sisters in the finale number. Words to live by. What are you waiting for? Join the crowd.

Sister Act runs at the new Triffo Theatre in MacEwan University’s Allard Hall (11110 104 Ave.) through Dec. 2. Parking, surface and underground, behind the Hall on 105 Ave. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).   

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