By Barry Reszel
Welcome to Lincolnshire, Stephanie Umoh!
Theatre World’s 2009-10 outstanding Broadway debut winner for her depiction of Sarah in Ragtime and Drury Lane’s Aida in Aida (2011) is back gracing a Chicagoland stage.
How lucky local patrons are for that.
Her dynamic performance as Deloris Van Cartier in Mariott Theatre’s Sister Act (Whoopie Goldberg‘s character in the movie) is a signature one. She croons, she belts, she convinces, she makes her fellow actors better and she thoroughly owns this area’s favorite theatre in the round.
Indeed the Sister Act stage musical version differs significantly from its film genesis. It’s reset in the 1970s with Marc Shaiman‘s motion picture soundtrack ditched in favor of a stage songbook (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater). The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) remains generally true to the well-known movie plotline: Young Philadelphia singer (Van Cartier) is influenced by the wrong people, witnesses them committing murder, hides with the help of police in a local convent, transforms the convent’s environment in part by taking over direction of the tone deaf nuns’ choir and finally works to save the church from hostile takeover while ducking from the bad guys.
A detailed plot synopsis and production history of the 2011 multi-Tony-nominated musical slapstick-with-soul may be read here.
Veteran Broadway and national Director Don Stephenson makes his Chicagoland directorial debut in this quickly-paced farce. Lovely and talented Melissa Zaremba, a fine dancer in her own right, choreographs Sister Act with the same harmonized precision the multi-Jeff winner, Music Director Doug Peck, brings to the cast’s vocal numbers.
Buoyed by longtime Chicagoland stage star Hollis Resnik as the crotchety Mother Superior (reprising her role from the 2012-14 national tour), Umoh leads an uber-talented ensemble in a show that’s just plain fun.
Standout performances brought about by terrific individual characterizations abound among the cast of nuns. Particularly memorable are Marya Grandy as Mary Martin of Tours, Lillian Castillo as Mary Patrick, Mary Robin Roth as Mary Lazarus, Anne Gunn as Mary Theresa and Dara Cameron along with Sharriese Hamilton as Mary All-Purpose-Nuns.
Tiffany Tatreau as Sister Mary Robert is a highlight unto herself. The brilliantly meek postulant has arguably the best number in a strong songbook to herself, and Tatreau elevates “The Life I Never Led” into a tie for the most heartwarming scene of an otherwise generally formulaic comedy. The other is Umoh’s stunningly lovely rendition of the title song, “Sister Act.”
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis shines as Deloris’ love interest, Sweaty Eddie, particularly showing off his significant vocal chops in “I Could Be That Guy” and in the reprise of “Fabulous Baby.” Stage vet Don Forston is also terrific as Monsignor O’Hara.
In this true ensemble piece, where most of the cast is onstage the entire show, musical (and dance) highlights include the all-cast numbers, “Take Me to Heaven,” “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” “Raise Your Voice,” “Saturday Morning Fever” and “Spread the Love Around.”
Backstage kudos go to terrific 1970s looks by Costume Designer Nancy Missimi and interesting lighting on a minimalist set, courtesy of Lighting Designer Jesse Klug.
Sitting in the audience at this production’s opening night, an oft-quoted phrase attributed to St. Augustine flooded into the mind of this musical theatre reviewer. Upon closer look, it seems the most accurate translation is, “He who sings well prays twice.”
In that case, Stephenson’s abundantly talented leading lady and heavenly cast of Sister Act is praying twice Thursdays and Fridays, four times on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
All services are open to the public. No homily.
“Sister Act” is presented at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through January 31. Tickets ($50-$55) are available here or by phone at 847-634-0200. Parking is free.