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The Barn in Foster City is transformed into a church this spring for “The Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith” and mass has begun. SISTER ACT The Musical is now on stage at Hillbarn stage for one more weekend and must close May 28th. Hillbarn Theatre, closes out its 2016–17 season with the Peninsula premiere of the five-time Tony Award-nominated hit musical, based on the 1992 big-screen hit starring Whoopi Goldberg. Music and songs by the priceless Alan Menken recreate the 1970s Motown, disco and Donna Summers feel, with lyrics by Glenn Slater and a fun book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner.

Directed by the able Bill Starr and his marvelous creative team, Rick Reynolds’ musical direction shines and Jim Ambler (who is also in the cast) creates some lively choreography. The powerhouse Dawn L. Troupe is featured in the role Whoopi Goldberg played in the original film and she is splendid in this “praise the Lord” musical.

Photography by Mark and Tracy Photography.

SISTER ACT’S transition from the 1992 film to a 2011 Broadway musical was not easy. It first opened at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse in 2006 and became the highest grossing musical PPH had launched. After the California success the nuns played in Atlanta, then, in 2009, it went across the pond and opened in London to mixed reviews. The SISTERS landed on Broadway in a revised adaptation of the show at The Broadway Theatre that opened in April 2011, directed by the class act Jerry Zaks. It went on to earn five Tony nominations, yet did not score one. But this Hillbarn production is Tony worthy and includes 24 talented local players that bring this cat and mouse chase an energy that has sold-out crowds on their feet at the end of each performance.

The story follows the exploits of street-savvy chanteuse Deloris Van Cartier, memorably embodied by the irresistible Ms.Troupe, a character with a taste for leopard prints, door-knocker earrings and bad boys. She opens the show with the rousing “Take Me to Heaven” with her chorus pals Rachelle Abbey and Arielle Rothman as Tina and Michelle. They continue to rock in “Fabulous Baby” with a prerecorded sound score that was a bit distracting, but Rick Reynolds’ fine music direction keeps the music mix plausible.

After Deloris witnesses her shady boyfriend Curtis, played by the stylish Gary Stanford, Jr., kill an informant, she turns to a friend-turned-policeman Eddie, played by the clever Jim Ambler. Eddie hides her in a failing convent with a tone-deaf choir and the story begins. Disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, she finds herself at odds with the conservative lifestyle but manages to use her talents to save the church and the tone-deaf choir of enduring nuns.

When Deloris arrives at the church she and her new landlord Mother Superior are immediately placed in a battle of wills.The Mother Superior is warmly portrayed by stern yet cautious Beth Anne Wells Viloria, her song “Here Within These Walls” shows off her classic voice with the mix of her nervous tone she uses to keep Deloris in line. Mother comes from the mold of nuns of old - those fearsome enforcers of rules who wielded punishing yardsticks and gave lesser human beings the evil eye.

Viloria is a highlight of this cast and her solo “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” is winning and well executed. Her performance is complemented by likeable Jessica Maxey as Sister Mary Roberts, whose powerful song “The Life I Never Led” delivers a character arc the play desperately needed. Maxey’s pitch perfect voice is clearly the highlight of many of the choir’s show stopping tunes.

The high notes of SISTER ACT are the production numbers with Starr’s clever direction and his infectious take of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s memorable songs. “It’s Good to be a Nun” and “Take Me to Heaven” feature a very polished and talented ensemble of nuns, including the foolproof Melissa Costa, who is perfectly cast as the wise cracking Sister Mary Patrick. Darlene Batchelder is amusing and has a great time as the straight-laced Sister Mary Lazarus. -- this weekend this role was played by Lindsay Kelliher. Rachelle Abbey wears a number of Sister hats - she is the accomplished dance captain and is a hoot as Sister Mary Martin-of–Tours, the totally "out of it" member of the sisterhood. Local favorite Robert Sholty does a nice turn as Monsignor O'Hara and has a delightful solo in “Sunday Morning Fever”.

When Deloris takes over the miserable choir, the show really begins to shine as the chorus of nuns belt out some of the best songs from the show, including “Raise Your Voice,” “Take Me To Heaven” and “Bless our Show”. Ambler’s choreography is creative and the other featured nuns include Minie Pullon, Oliva Chavez, Lindsay Kelliher, Susan Melanson, Sara Rangel-Murphy, Alexandra Nemchik and as the senior older nun Sister Mary Theresa, the deluxe Katie Tupper. Music director Reynolds brings the energy of gospel rock to uplift the sold out Hillbarn audience, especially with the show stoppers “Spread The Love Around” and “Raise Your Voice” that close the show.

The men of the show are not forgotten. Jim Ambler wails as Eddie, displaying a strong singing voice and a charming attitude, especially in "I Could Be That Guy." Costume designer Valarie Emmi had the challenge to create clever breakaway clothes for Eddie’s quick changes from a cop to lounge singer. Emmi’s costumes also kept Troupe looking slick in her club scenes and white and black in her nun hideout robes. The nuns all sparkle and sizzle in colorful costumes as the second act has its predictable closing.

The villain of the story, Curtis, is played by the imposing Gary Stanford, Jr. who sings "When I Find My Baby" with finesse and fills the Hillbarn with fear, and is a gem at it. The good news is his three goons steal the show in the number “Lady in the Long Dress,” featuring Nick Dale as Pablo, Sam Nachison as Joey, and Sheraj Ragoobeer as TJ in some perfect falsetto-leaning harmonies and Motown Jazz high steps. The supporting cast is excellent and many play multiple roles with ease. The ensemble features the delightfully smooth dancer Nicholas J Garland along with show stoppers Kyle Arrouzet, Jay Thulien and Ray Ross.

The impressive scenic design by R. Dutch Fritz utilizes mobile walls to transform the stage from the streets of Philly to an elegant high-raftered convent, while the colorful lighting by William Springhorn, Jr. convinces us that we are living in the age of disco. The police car lighting and dark theme of the chapel all fit well with the texture from the colorful stained glass windows. Prop Master Rosie Issel reinforces the theme with plenty of bibles, a working confessional and Curtis’ evil hand gun. The hair and wig design of Dee Morrissey is sometimes unseen, since the nuns habits keep most of the hair under wraps, but Troupe’s imposing afro wigs are full of character. A special shoutout to Alan Chang’s sound design and his mix of the prerecorded soundtrack. I have to admit the boom box orchestration was a bit distracting and reminded me of a Disney park show, but this cast can sing and I soon forgot about the canned feel.

Shining brighter than all the high energy of this production is Dawn L Troupe’s inspired performance. Her stage presence and energy are captivating while her powerhouse of a voice supplies the gospel sound this musical calls for. This uplifting musical is filled with powerful gospel music, skillful dancing and a fun story about the universal power of friendship as the choir of nuns find their voices.

SISTER ACT is not one of the better new musicals - it has flaws, but it also has heart and a brilliant cast with Troupe, Viloria, Ambler and Maxey, who make this a perfect way for Hillbarn to end their wonderful season. Artistic Director Dan Demers announced his 77th lineup that includes THE FULL MONTY and the Bay Area Premiere of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Very few seats remain for this closing weekend of SISTER ACT - There will be a waiting list each night and, from my past experience watching house managers Kevin Low and Mary Dragonryder, they seem to get everyone a seat. Bring your bible and spirit and be ready to be blown away by SISTER ACT - you will be on your feet by the end of the show!

HillBarn Theatre Presents

“Sister Act”

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater,

Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner

Directed by Bill Starr

Music Director Rick Reynolds, Choreographer Jim Ambler

Only through May 28th

Hillbarn Theatre

1285 East Hillsdale Blvd.

Foster City, CA 94404

Two Hours 30 minutes with a 15 min intermission

Photo credit: Mark and Tracy Photography

Led by Dawn Troupe*, as Deloris Van Cartier, Sister Act features an ensemble cast including (in alphabetical order) Rachelle Abbey, Kyle Arrouzet, Darlene Batchelder, Olivia Chavez, Melissa Costa, Nick Dale, Nicholas Garland, Lindsay Kelliher, Minie Pullon, Jessica Maxey, Susan Melanson, Sara Murphy, Sam Nachison, Alexandra Nemchik, Ray Ross, Mary Scotts, Arielle Rothman, Robert Sholty, Gary Stanford, Jr., *Jim Ambler as Eddie, Jay Thulien, Katie Tupper, Beth Anne Wells and Sheraj Ragoobeer. *Member of Actors’ Equity Association

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