By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Raise the stakes! Raise the game! Raise your voice,” sing the nuns of Sister Act, newly kitted out as a showbiz soul ensemble by the latest recruit to the Sisterhood.
“Feel the flow, dig the scene. Shake it like you’re Mary Magdalene.”
What they and their disapproving Mother Superior discover in the course of the high-spirited Broadway musical currently raising rafters at the Mayfield is that making a joyful noise gets better pay-off if there’s (a) a common key and (b) an audience in the pews.
What the creators of this 2011 musical (music by the go-to Disney composer Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater) spun from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg hit movie, have nailed is the reliable comic attraction of nuns in full black-and-white regalia getting down and being fabulous. Sisters and sequins and the advice to “boogie till you feel your spirit move”: a no-fail spring tonic (kickier than communion wine) judging by the production directed by Jim Guedo.
Sister Act, as you’ll know from the movie, is set in motion when an aspiring disco diva in ‘70s Philadelphia, Deloris Van Cartier by name (Katrina Reynolds), has the bad timing to witness her mobster boyfriend (Michael-Lamont Lytle) murdering someone. Which is how the exuberant Deloris finds herself hiding out under a wimple in a convent. “Is there a smoking section?”
The showbiz gene being contagious, Deloris can’t help herself transforming a lack-lustre if dutiful choir with an infusion of Philly soul, R&B and disco, and some flashy moves (choreographer Christine Bandelow). And Reynolds, who has a charismatic energy about her, turns in a flamboyant performance as a star-in-progress who learns something about ensemble work back from the nuns, too.
The purse-lipped Mother Superior (Susan Gilmour) is appalled by the disruption: “My life’s like the Stations of the Cross. But without the laughs.” But when the pews, long empty, begin to fill (along with the church restoration fund), the Monsignor (Garett Ross) is overjoyed.“Give yourselves a big round of applause,” he says to the assembled, digging the producer groove. “Let’s hear it for the balcony!”
What the Monsignor has discovered, bless his soul, is something the Mayfield knows all about: musical theatre is a big draw — mass appeal, as you might say. “The reviews are in! ’If you see only one Roman Catholic mass this season, let this be the one!’” Ross is highly amusing in negotiating this transformation.
Guedo’s production is fuelled by the fun of a gallery of individualized sisters. Pamela Gordon is very funny as the acerbic, whisky-voiced Sister Mary Lazarus, along with Michelle Diaz as the buoyant nun fangirl Sister Mary Patrick. The vocal and comic lustre is enhanced by such top-flight actors as Cathy Derkach and Andrea House, among others. And Jill Agopsowica is delightful as the convent postulant who really lands her wistful, then fiery, solo number The Life I Never Led. Gilmour applies herself to Mother Superior deadpan (top-notes of exasperation) with notable God-give-me-patience results, even in comic lines that aren’t Sister Act’s best feature by a long shot. It’s a kick-ass — or should I say “sanctifunkadelic”? — ensemble.
One of the funniest numbers of the evening belongs to guys, though. In The Lady in the Long Black Dress, the mobster’s hapless trio of hitmen — Brad Wiebe, Jahlen Barnes and Nelson Bettencourt — show off the smooth ‘70s moves that no mere nun will be able to resist. Lytle and Aaidin Church as the mob boss and the underachiever cop are excellent.
The band, as you have come to expect at the Mayfield, is just first-rate — in ‘70s pastiche numbers, in comic patter songs, in Broadway-type ballads, in every style the musical throws at them. And since the music in Sister Act is sharper than the book, this is crucial. And speaking of transformation, kudos to set and video designer T. Erin Gruber who, assisted by lighting designer Kevin Humphrey, creates the worlds within and outside the convent walls — the pious and the Philly cheesesteak tacky — by playing ingeniously with glass bricks and scaffolding.
The “Sunday morning hustle,” in all its infectious glory, is available nightly. Spread the love.
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.
Created by: Alan Menken (music), Glenn Slater (lyrics), Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner (book) with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by: Jim Guedo
Starring: Katrina Reynolds, Susan Gilmour, Michael-Lamont Lytle, Garett Ross
Running: through June 9
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca