TWELVE SINGING NUNS WHO DANCE UP A STORM CELEBRATE THE BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE
10TH YEAR OF FAMILY THEATRE IN THE EAST BAY
The Julia Morgan Theatre has been transformed back into a church this fall for “The Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith” and mass on College Ave has begun. SISTER ACT The Musical is now on stage at The Berkeley Playhouse stage through October 22nd. BPH opens their tenth season for family audiences with the East Bay premiere of the five-time Tony Award-nominated hit musical. BPH Artistic Director Kimberly Dooley says she wanted to open Season 10 with a celebration “We wanted our season opener to not only embrace our core mission, but also be a rousing, exuberant musical that brings our community together. Sister Act hits all the right notes.” Dooley also points out the historic Julia Morgan Theatre was originally a community church and the perfect spot for this uplifting story.
SISTER ACT is 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 Lexie Lazear and her marvelous creative team, Michael Patrick Wiles’ musical direction shines and Allison Paraiso creates some lively choreography. Director Lazear is known for her excellent makeup and wigs that are keen for this production and she agrees that theatre has the ability to bring people together “Many musicals are all belly laughs and some are mostly tears, but my favorite is a mix of both and heart. Sister Act is one of those - shows.”
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 Berkeley Playhouse production is Tony worthy and includes 23 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 capable Elizabeth Jones is featured in the role Whoopi Goldberg played in the original film and she is splendid in this “praise the Lord” musical. Lazear and her music/ casting director Wiles brought together a company with some BPH favorites and the Bay’s best musical actors.
Photo credit: Ben Krantz
The story follows the exploits of street-savvy chanteuse, Deloris Van Cartier, memorably embodied by the irresistible Ms.Jones, a character with a taste for leopard prints, huge hoop earrings and bad boys. She opens the show with the rousing “Take Me to Heaven” with her chorus pals Gina Gambardella and Vida Mae Fernandez as Tina and Michelle. They continue to rock in “Fabulous Baby” with a soul sound score that is sizzling, by Wiles’ fine music direction and his fresh pit six member orchestra.
After Deloris witnesses a killing by her shady boyfriend, Curtis, played by the stylish Antone Jackson, and the Sunday mass I saw the marvelous Branden Noel Thomas was in the bully role. Deloris turns to a friend and policeman, Eddie, played by the flawless Dave J. Abrams. Sweaty 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 endearing 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 local favorite Heather Orth, 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 school - those fearsome enforcers of rules who wielded punishing yardsticks and gave lesser human beings the evil eye.
Orth 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 Elizabeth Curtis as Sister Mary Roberts, whose powerful song “The Life I Never Led” delivers a character arc the play desperately needs to raise the spirit of this celebration. Curtis’ 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 Lazear’s gospel inspired direction and his infectious version 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 Sheila Townsend, who is perfectly cast as the wise cracking Sister Mary Patrick. Jeanine Perasso-Kaczmarczyk is amusing and has a great time as the straight-laced Sister Mary Lazarus. Jill Gould is perfect Sister and a hoot as Sister Mary Martin-of–Tours, the totally "out of it" member of the sisterhood. Local favorite Brian Watson does a nice turn as Monsignor O'Hara and has a delightful solo in “Sunday Morning Fever.” Cathrine Delos Santos is the accomplished dance captain and Sister Irene and other ensemble roles. Sister Mary Theresa is not lost, she is adorable and played by Mary Gibboney.
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”. Paraiso’s choreography is rousing and creative especially in the company show stopping “Raise You Voice”. Other featured nuns include the likable Jennifer Frazier, Aurelia Jordan, Giana Gambardella and Vida Mae. Music director Wiles brings the energy of gospel rock to uplift the sold out BPH Sunday audience, especially with the show stoppers “Spread The Love Around” and “Sunday Morning Fever” that highlights the second act.
The men of the show are not forgotten. The show stopping moves of Abrams wails as Eddie, displaying a strong singing voice and a charming attitude, especially in "I Could Be That Guy." Costume designers Bethany Deal had the challenge to create clever breakaway clothes for Eddie’s quick changes from a cop to lounge singer. Deal's costumes also kept Jones looking slick in her club scenes and white and black in her nun hideout robes including the hip hop habits.
The nuns all sparkle and sizzle in colorful costumes as the second act has its predictable closing. The entire cast slips into jazz hands sparkles in the wardrobe. The stage management of Shannon Reilly, Emma Gifford and Emma Gossett kept the 23 member cast and large backstage crew all on cue.
The villain of the story, Curtis, is played by the imposing Thomas who sings "When I Find My Baby" with finesse and fills the Julia Morgan church with fear, and is a gem at it. Jackson also plays the role and I am sure carries the bully level well. The good news is his three goons steal the show in the number “Lady in the Long Dress,” featuring Jesse Cortez as Pablo, Chris Plank as Joey, and hip hop energetic Marcel Saunder as TJ. All three lovable villains are in some perfect falsetto pop favorite 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 Joren Reyes along with the deluxe Keala Freitas and tall swank M. Javi Harnly.
The show stopping drag queen Bartender and Rock star Pope are played by the exceptional Neal Pascua, and he never fails to entertain and steal any show he is cast in.
The impressive scenic design by Mark Mendelson includes mobile walls to transform the stage from the streets of Philly to an elegant high-raftered convent. Mendelson crafted a double sided stained glass window that elegantly returned the Julia Morgan Church back to its original 1910 look. The other side of the spinning set takes us to the nightclubs of Philly. The walls rolled and folded into church corridors, confessionals and the Mother Superior's office. The colorful moody lighting by Cameron Pence at times become a character of its own as his back lights shine through the back windows and highlight the nuns. In an instant Pence lights turn into a disco or police car lighting and dark theme of the chapel all fit well with the texture from the colorful stained glass windows. The no-nonsense Dave Maier choreographed the fun fight and chase scenes that keeps the second act lively.
Prop Master Marisa Ramos reinforces the theme with plenty of bibles, bowls of mutton, a working confessional and Curtis’ evil hand gun. The hair and wig design of director Lazear and Katelyn Bailey is sometimes unseen since the nuns’ habits keep most of the hair under wraps, but Jones’ and Pascua’s imposing wigs are full of character. A special shoutout to Lyle Barrere’s sound design as he added the deep echo to give the church and corridor scenes that authentic feel and sound. His audio engineer Joshua Price filled the Julia Morgan with the perfect mix of the ensemble and Wiles impressive pit.
Shining bright in this production is Heather Orth’s inspired performance as the Mother Superior and the high energy powerhouse voice and dance of Dave J Abrams. Brenden Noel Thomas, Elizabeth Curtis and Anthone Jackson supply the big 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 and back up their new friend, Deloris.
SISTER ACT is not one of the better new musicals - it has flaws, but it also has heart and a brilliant cast who make this a perfect way for The Berkeley Playhouse to open their exciting 10th season.
Artistic Director Dooley announced the 2017 - 18 lineup that includes ANNIE for the holidays, RAGTIME, Roald Dahl’s JAMES AND THE GIANT, and in the summer of 2018 the teens from Rydell High return in GREASE. But in the meantime no need to bring your bible but bring some spirit and be ready to be blown away by SISTER ACT - you will be on your feet by the end of the show!
Presents their 10th Season
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater,
Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner
Directed by Lexie Lazear, Music Director Michael Patrick Wiles,
Choreographer Allison Paraiso
Only through October 22nd
Julia Morgan Theatre
1285 College Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Two Hours 30 minutes with a 15 min intermission
CHECK THE WEB SITE FOR PAY WHAT YOU CAN PERFORMANCES
Photo credit: Ben Krantz
PAY WHAT YOU CAN DATE OCT 12 AT 7PM
To further provide easy access to professional musical theater in the heart of Berkeley, Managing Director Gretchen Feyer announced that beginning with Sister Act the company would double its popular “Pay What You Can” performances, beginning with Sister Act. “We want to make sure that anyone in our community who wants to enjoy an evening of theater can do so. Our most recent ‘Pay What You Can’ performance sold out—over 350 theatergoers were able to see our production of Tarzan paying an average of $8.00 a ticket, but more than 65 theatergoers were turned away—we simply couldn’t fit one more person in the theater! It was thrilling and heartbreaking at the same time.
Starting this season, each production will have two performances offering a ‘Pay What You Can’ option.” Sister Act will offer its Pay What You Can dates on Thursday, October 5 and 12 at the 7 p.m. performance. Tickets for Pay What You Can performances go on sale at the Julia Morgan Theater box office one hour prior to performance time. Tickets are cash only and no reservation is required, and seating is assigned at time of purchase.
Dave J Abrams and Joren Reyes