Theater Review: SISTER ACT (Mercury Theater)

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by Dan Zeff on November 12, 2021

in Theater-Chicago

Sister Act at the Mercury Theater is the 2011 Broadway adaptation of a 1992 movie that became a surprise box office hit, largely elevated by a star performance from Whoopi Goldberg. The show asks the audience to buy into the premise that a cabaret singer is temporarily placed in a convent disguised as a nun to escape the vengeance of her gangster boyfriend, who wants to rub her out as the sole witness to a murder.

Alexis J. Roston

The 1978 City of Brotherly Love setting allows composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater to exploit the Philadelphia soul and rhythm-and-blues scene of the 1970s. When the characters aren’t belting out Soul Train- and Motown-style tunes, they are exchanging jokes with a heavy Roman Catholic inflection and shaking their booties to the rock sound of the day. As a frame of reference, the show should appeal to devotees of Nunsense, a musical that jived its way through countless performances off Broadway and in regional theaters starting in the late 1980s.

Isabella Andrews, Nicole Cready, Alexis J. Roston, Leah Morrow

Sister Act is not a great show, though it is often entertaining. This revival concentrates its merits in the second act, when the music takes over from the nonsensical storyline. The chief positive here is the collection of wailing voices of the female characters, starting with Alexis J. Roston, who plays Deloris Van Cartier, the singer in hiding (the Whoopi Goldberg role). Roston looks a little like Simone Biles and definitely knows how to sell a song, be it emotional or hot.

Nancy Wagner, Nicole Arnold, Isabella Andrews, Nicole Cready

For purposes of story conflict Deloris is matched against the convent mother superior, a starchy lady hostile to the way Deloris wins over the nuns with her liberating hip singing and overall sass. The mother superior role was originally set for long time Chicagoland musical star Hollis Resnik, who had to leave before the opening and was replaced by Jane Grebeck-Brewer. The character should inject some serious conflict into the narrative but Grebeck-Brewer fell in with the production’s broad comic elements, costing the story the serious underpinnings that would give the narrative a more three-dimensional heft.

Nicole Armold, Gilbert Domally, Ed Kross

The Mercury cast is lumbered with a flat first half hour of dialogue and comic repartee. Throughout the evening there are “bootie” jokes and lyrics like “If you got stigmata/show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” But the Menken songs, like “When I Find My Baby” performed in smooth disco style by a trio of gangsters, and “The Life I Never Led,” sung with genuine passion by Isabella Andrews as Sister Mary Robert, provide strong musical moments. As the owlish senior citizen nun Mary Lazarus, Jenny Rudnick tosses off her cynical and unecclesiastical wisecracks in a steady stream. The remaining members of the high energy corps of nuns also deserve name recognition — Leah Morrow, Nicole Cready, and Nancy Wagner. And Ed Kross, who has been my favorite local comic actor for decades, is good for an honest laugh every time he appears, whether as a murdered gangster or a hip Pope Pius VI.

The nuns perform "Take Me to Heaven"

The physical production features clever scenic and video design by Angela Weber Miller and G. “Max” Maxin IV and plenty of gaudy sequin-drenched costumes designed by Marquecia Jordan. Reneisha Jenkins is the director and Christopher Chase Carter is the choreographer. A four-piece offstage band skillfully supplies the musical accompaniment.

Yasir Muhammad, Ed Kross, Marcus Jackson

In what has become a distressing Chicagoland tradition, the opening night audience whoops and hollers through even the lamest verbal and physical gags. The boisterous reaction from the youngish customers is wearisome and intrusive. There is singing and dancing on the Mercury stage that deserves audience recognition, but come on.

The Company

photos by Brett Beiner

Jane Grebeck-Brewer

Sister Act
Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport
Wed – Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2 & 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on January 2, 2022
for tickets ($35-$80), call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

for more shows, visit  Theatre in Chicago

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