Review: Sister Act at Matthews Playhouse
By Perry Tannenbaum
A full flowering of onstage success has somehow scurried away from Iris DeWitt in recent years. Just last April, pandemic restrictions and a wretched recording rig trapped her inside a masked, malodorous production of Sense and Sensibility at Central Piedmont Community College. Patchy intelligibility also wrecked DeWitt’s previous outing in the badly-miked production of Chess in 2020. Until 2022 rolled in, you’d have to go back to 2019 if you wanted to claim to have seen DeWitt anywhere near her imposing potential, when she played prominent roles in Beehive and Little Shop of Horrors.
Neither of those CPCC Summer Theatre productions obliged DeWitt to show us much of her acting or dancing skills. Beehive was totally bereft of plot, and while Iris’s undeniable vocal power was manifest in Little Shop, no full flowering was evident there, either. We had to settle for the most memorable who-did-she-play performance in recent Charlotte history, for DeWitt was a flower in that musical, hidden in the cavernous depths of Audrey 2 in Little Shop.
This year, the script is flipping and momentum building as DeWitt has figured prominently in Ghosts of Bogota, when Actor’s Theatre returned to Queens University, and Love, Loss and What I Wore in the recent Theatre Charlotte production at Camp North End. Paula Baldwin, who directed that sloppily streamed S&S adaptation of Jane Austen last year, clearly retained enough confidence in DeWitt to see her as Deloris Van Cartier, the lead role in Sister Act. Ron Chisholm, choreographer for this Matthews Playhouse extravaganza at The Fullwood Theatre, probably also saw some potential waiting to blossom in DeWitt’s previously untested dancing feet.
We’re not so sure when we first see Deloris and her backup singers onstage. The vocals are sufficiently electric but not full voltage, while the doo-wop moves are nowhere near Supreme. I’m guessing that Baldwin and Chisholm have asked DeWitt to cool her jets on “Take Me to Heaven” because Deloris is nervous about auditioning for her paramour, Curtis, an intimidating mobster, at his club. But why on earth should Curtis, a man of highly questionable character, be even a little justified in thinking that Deloris and her crew aren’t ready for a recording contract and the bright lights?
Apparently, writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner thought that their protagonist needed a crisis of confidence in the early stages of her spiritual journey, one that Paul Rudnick found unnecessary in his original screenplay for the 1982 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. There, Deloris and crew had all the polish of the Supremes from the start, singing a doo-wop medley in the bowels of a Las Vegas casino owned by her mobster boyfriend, drawing two claps and a stare from a late-night audience of gamblers.
Now they’re in some undisclosed Philadelphia dive, where the only audience is Curtis, his three henchmen, and us. Curiously enough, the transfer from the glitz of Vegas to the dumps of Philly makes Sister Act more at home in a community theatre setting than on the big stages of London’s West End, Broadway, or at Ovens Auditorium – not to forget Halton Theater, where it was staged in yet another CP production back in January 2013.
As soon as Deloris and her crew began to regroup in “Fabulous, Baby!” we had our first glimpses of all that DeWitt can be onstage. My own realizations, beyond her trusty vocal powers, were split between her ability to dance – gliding disco or righteous gospel – around the stage she commanded and the thoroughly professional depth of her acting. Watch DeWitt’s reactions for a while and you eventually find it difficult to take your eyes off her until she makes an exit.
And don’t fret about any missed opportunity with “Take Me to Heaven”: DeWitt and most of the ensemble get a grand do-over at the end of Act 1.
After the additional indignity of being gifted with a garish hand-me-down fur coat previously owned by Curtis’s wife, Deloris has the misfortune of witnessing the club owner brutally gunning down a snitching henchman in cold blood. On the run from her ex, Deloris leaves Curtis in the lurch for the better part of the night as the saloon singer is placed in a witness protection program and sequestered in a midtown convent. That calls for a new counterweight for Deloris to provide the plot with some fresh friction, a call sternly answered by the convent’s Mother Superior, the role played by Maggie Smith opposite Goldberg in the film.
Oh, and by the way, Baldwin herself played that Maggie Smith role at CP in 2013, so she’s directing a show that she knows intimately from the inside. Maybe she already envisioned what I had yet to perceive in a smaller venue, that what the Steinkellners sought most earnestly in their adaptation of the movie was to make the story more character-driven and less of an action comedy. Building upon Mother Superior’s most familiar film epigram, “God sent you here for a reason – take the hint,” the Steinkellners, along with songwriter Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, team up to give greater voice to her spiritual crisis.
Both of Menken’s ballads for Mother Superior, “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” sit nicely in Carol Weiner’s vocal range and sternness is Weiner’s prime onstage métier, so she eclipses anything we’ve seen from her before, including her starchy turns in Big River, Bonnie and Clyde, and Oliver! There’s more than a hint of Menken’s “Beauty and the Beast” lurking inside of “Within These Walls,” and Weiner allows its warmth to radiate through Mother Superior’s gradual softening toward Deloris.
More personal crises are layered over the thinner movie scenario. Young apprentice nun Sister Marie Robert, beguiled in the film by the bar where Deloris finds refuge from the convent’s cheerless monotony, now questions whether she should be leaving the real world for a convent – netting Melissa Lozada two cracks at the novice’s power ballad, “The Life I Never Led.” The dreamboat cop who whisked Deloris out of town in the movie, not even letting his colleagues know where she was, is now the hesitant, self-doubting Sweaty Eddie, relegated to a desk job when he wouldn’t fire his gun out on the beat.
Saddled with a lingering crush on Deloris that goes back to high school, Eddie draws “I Could Be That Guy” to cry out his anguish, slightly more comical than Lozada’s plaints but hardly less of a showstopper for Griffin Digsby, who swoops down into Barry White territory in voicing his romantic aspirations. Also going there, surprisingly enough, is Mike Carroll as Monsignor O’Hara, who presides over Sunday services and surprisingly turns out to be a Deloris groupie when she revamps the convent’s choir.
Baldwin and Chisholm not only draw strong players down in Matthews, but they also get strong design and technical backup. Debbie Scheu’s designs for the nuns’ habits grow more spangled and outré as the convent choir grows in prestige and popularity. The glossy, reflective dress Deloris wears in her Van Cartier persona complements the stained-glass backdrop that scenic designer Marty Wolff has provided for the church. Four sets of translucent arches that inch closer together as we move upstage change colors during the glitzier scenes climaxing the action, as Jeffrey Childs’ lighting design adds excitement to Chisholm’s choreography.
Amazingly, the only scene where downsizing doesn’t work at Fullwood Theatre is the squalid bar scene. The room is simply too small for Curtis’s henchmen not to notice three nuns when they enter – or for Deloris to overlook these motley thugs for more than five seconds. Then again, Menken had worked at least three Disney musicals before attempting SISTER ACT in 2011, so he hadn’t yet mastered the Harvey Keitel gravitas we might expect from real dons and heavies (A Bronx Tale would come more than five years later).
Jamaas Britton, Ra’Saun Elliott, and Neifert Enrique play these street urchins with all the menace of the Lion King hyenas. They get a spotlight – or a lava lamp – shortly after intermission, when they spar over the best way to romance a Sister in “Lady With the Long Black Dress,” Elliott explicitly espousing the Barry White approach. Edgier than his goons, Kristopher Loretz as Curtis gets to riff sardonically, in “When I Find My Baby,” on the penitent reconciliation serenades that scamps have been wooing women with for ages, replacing the customary promises of hugs and kisses with vows of knives and guns.
All of these bottom feeders are portrayed with the same assurance as the principals, to the delight of the Sunday matinee audience, who loudly gave them all a standing O. It was likely exciting for the energized crowd to be back at Matthews Playhouse watching a musical – and maybe amazing for them to see production values as high, or perhaps higher, than ever.