By Barry Reszel
A fellow theatre junkie brother referred to the opening of Mercury Theater Chicago’s terrific Sister Act as a family reunion. Indeed, this first live production here since the COVID-19 pandemic began brought out all the cousins to celebrate Mercury’s joyous reopening with Executive Producers Walter Stearns and Eugene Dizon.
And they were delighted by Alexis J. Roston’s electric performance as Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopie Goldberg‘s character in the movie). Whether crooning or belting (both done to perfection), Roston makes all around her shine as she thoroughly owns this Chicagoland gem of theatrical intimacy.
The Sister Act stage musical version differs from its film genesis. It’s reset in the 1970s, and Marc Shaiman‘s motion picture soundtrack is 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.
Backstage plaudits begin with those to Director Reneisha Jenkins, who guides her cast precisely in a necessarily quickly-paced farce. Ebullient, talented Christopher Chase Carter choreographs Sister Act with harmonized hilarity, delivering on his pre-show promise (in his role as Mercury’s artistic director) that audiences will laugh a lot. Marquecia Jordan’s costumes are opulent and surprising. And Scenic Designer Angela Weber Miller puts out a functional and intricate unit set that rates among the very best seen on Mercury’s stage.
Lifted by Jane Grebeck-Brewer as the crotchety Mother Superior, Roston leads a wonderfully talented cast. The show is a schmaltzy cliché that works because its talented creatives and standout cast lean into the 70s schtick while pulling out enough emotion amid the eye rolls of delight and genuine laughter. In this true ensemble piece, where much of the cast is onstage the entire show, music and dance standouts include, “Take Me to Heaven,” “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” “Raise Your Voice,” “Saturday Morning Fever” and “Spread the Love Around.”
How hard it must be for this cast of singing nuns to purposefully sing off key before being transformed by lounge singer Deloris. Among this group, particularly memorable performances come from Leah Morrow as Mary Patrick and Jenny Rudnick as Mary Lazarus.
Gilbert Domally is convincing as the doofus cop and Deloris’ love interest, Sweaty Eddie. He shows off fine vocals in “I Could Be That Guy” and in the reprise of “Fabulous Baby.” Ed Kross is hilarious as the kindly Monsignor O’Hara.
Isabella Andrews as Mary Robert, the meek postulant, delivers splendidly in perhaps the loveliest solo in a relatively strong songbook, “The Life I Never Led.” In this reviewer’s mind, this and Roston’s stunning rendition of the title song are absolute vocal highlights.
With its theatrical nod to sisterhood and celebration of friendship, Sister Act is the perfect opening selection for Mercury to host family reunions six times a week through the holidays. Get thee to the theatre and help spread the love around.
“Sister Act” is presented at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave., through Jan. 2, 2022. More information and tickets are available here.
Photos by Brett Beiner.