Tag Archives: Jamaas Britton

Downsizing “Sister Act” Pays Big Dividends at Matthews Playhouse

Review: Sister Act at Matthews Playhouse

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Sister Act-11

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.2022~Sister Act-10

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.2022~Sister Act-04

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.2022~Sister Act-09

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.Photo1 @ Tom Henderson Photography

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).Photo2 @ Tom Henderson Photography

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.

Hitting the (Monroe) Road With a Slightly Toned-Down “Rock of Ages”

Review: Rock of Ages at The Barn @ MoRA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Actors_Theatre_headshot_fenixfoto_Charlotte__-2

As the exit ramp from the pandemic keeps getting longer, summertime urges to break out of isolation, let loose, and rock out aren’t likely to back up now. In this confused and anxious moment, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has taken a nicely calculated route to satisfying these urges, moving from their established HQ at Queens University to the outdoors and presenting a three-show “Rock the Barn” mini-season of three rock musicals out on Monroe Road. The first of these, Rock of Ages, has begun a run that will play to fans of ‘80s heavy metal and power ballads through August 21.

Days are still long enough so that shows begin before dark, but when night falls, Biff Edge’s lighting design gradually becomes gaudier, smoke effects play better, and we’re immersed in a true arena rock vibe. Musicians and actors are covered by a massive pavilion while ticketholders bring lawn chairs and experience the musical on a gently sloping lawn. ATC executive director Chip Decker assured us that the grounds at The Barn at MoRA (Monroe Road Area or Monroe Road Advocates, take your pick) had been sprayed for bugs, and indeed, although one of the critters crashed into my face during the full-length show, none bit.

Decker had directed an indoor production of Rock of Ages back in 2015, finding far more humor in Chris D’Arienzo’s book than the touring production of 2011 had brought to us and adding far more energy with Tod Kubo’s raunchy choreography. This time around, Decker wanted to play to a younger crowd, sidestepping some of the previous sleaze that might affright locals on the east side of town. A portion of that R-rated content had been achieved with scanty costuming and zesty pole dancing, but only one of these can be readily exported to the great outdoors. Taking over for Kubo, Renee Welsh Noel is not at all timid with her choreography, lavishing plenty of bumps and grinds for our delectation when the action moves from the rockin’ Bourbon Room to the salacious Venus Club, and costume designer Carrie Cranford’s working gear for Sherrie Christian, our heroine, credibly delivers what her customers would desire.

Actors_Theatre_headshot_fenixfoto_Charlotte__1180

Sherrie and our hero, Drew Boley, converge in LA sometime in 1987 and are briefly co-workers at the Bourbon Room. Since D’Arienzo’s book is tasked with connecting about 30 songs filled with teen passion and suffering, Drew and Sherrie’s romance is predictably rocky, filled with misunderstandings, bitterness, regret, and compromising situations before we come anywhere near a first kiss. At times, the couple fades into the background because the main plot and its complications concern the imperiled Bourbon Room, owned and managed by beloved goofball Dennis Dupree with the assistance of Lonny Barnett, his soundman and our narrator.

This cherished Sunset Strip landmark is targeted by the greedy German real estate developer Hertz Klinemann and his submissive son Franz for liquidation. Funky neighborhood and cultural treasures yielding to real estate profiteers and gentrification? That only happens in real life – not in feel-good movies and musicals. City planner Regina Koontz, do-gooder and rabble-rouser, pushes back against the Klinemanns, hatching a couple of nifty plot twists and song assignments before the blissful finale.

As Decker foretold in his welcoming remarks, performing on the grounds of The Barn at MoRA is a bit of a leap into the unknown, and he hoped the top of the pavilion would hold fast after being blown away during rehearsals. A plucky last-minute soundcheck by Cranford, doubling as our production manager, provided further reason for us to keep our fingers crossed when the show began. Thankfully, she concentrated on Elizabeth Medlin and Grant Zavitkovsky, who play the temperamental Sherrie and Drew. Cliched as they may be as lovebirds, they needed to have the best mics for their songs.

When things were going badly, when Drew was hoodwinked by record producer Ja’Keith Gill into fronting a boy band while Sherrie had been recruited by Justice Charlier into the degradations of the Venus Club, their anguished duet on Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” came across like the climactic highlight it was intended to be. By that time, we could chuckle a bit as we noticed that Decker had placed Zavitkovsky and Medlin at opposite sides of the stage to belt out their harmonies. Close contact between even the best mics onstage almost invariably led to lethal feedback blasting through the loudspeakers. Mercifully, these blasts were on the low end of the audio spectrum rather than high squeals.

The chief roadblock to romantic bliss between Sherrie and Drew is the awesome rock icon, Stacee Jaxx, coerced by Dennis to help raise funds for the Bourbon Room and prevent the Klinemanns from taking over. We quickly see the rowdiness and lawlessness that has alienated Stacee from Arsenal, the hit band that made Jaxx a star. Decker has sprung a surprise here, for the role played onscreen by Tom Cruise switched genders and Stacee was now sung by Shea – not with the best of the mics – adding new twists to Sherrie’s sexuality and Drew’s jealousy.

Medlin didn’t get a shot at the pole dance Decker staged in 2015, nor can we pity her any longer as a rape victim, but she definitely turned up the heat on the lap dance she performed for Stacee at a less provocative Venus Club. Less obvious are the benefits of Decker’s rethinking of Drew, for Zavitkovsky has the steely larynx needed to wail this rockstar wannabe, but his looks, while wholesome enough, allow more readily for failure – and the direction where this plot is actually headed.

Actors_Theatre_headshot_fenixfoto_Charlotte__1196

Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis got his mic working intermittently, a definite improvement after his inaudible soundchecks, partnering well with Ryan Stamey as Lonny, who wrestled ebulliently with similar variables in his signature wild-man style. Nevertheless, dialogue and plot grew as foggy as the two flawless fog machines facing the stage when Katy Shepherd stepped forward in rather butch fashion as Regina and we needed to rely on Ryan Stinnett’s mic as Hertz and Jamaas Britton’s as Franz to keep track of the plot. Yet the three of them collaborated more than effectively enough, aided by a couple of tearaway costumes, to deliver the high comedy voltage of Pat Banatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

With a more colorful costume, better lighting, and a better mic, Tony Mullins as Ja’Keith fared better on opening night than Shaniya Simmons as Justice. While lights and sound seemed to let Shea down and tamp down Stacee’s villainy – if a heavy-metal villain isn’t a sort of oxymoron – the setup for the five-piece band, including two guitars and led by Jessica Borgnis on keys, held rock-steady throughout the evening.

That was often bad news for the audience when we needed to hear the singers and discern the lyrics they sung over their relatively underpowered mics. As a result, the show remained more compelling for the older generation lounging on their lawn chairs, those spry folk already familiar with the oeuvre of Banatar, Yankees, Poison, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, and David Lee Roth. As for me, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” had me thinking that the collected works of Foreigner might be worth looking into.