Monday, November 13, 2017

Sister Act is Again a Surefire Hit at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

What a difference a few short years can make. 

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

When Sister Act last came to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) it was 2015. The presidential election was just kicking into gear, Charlottesville had never happened, and Harvey Weinstein was still Hollywood's friendliest movie producer.

Oh how times change.

In that first Sister Act, the production was fun but in retrospect a little glib. I enjoyed it quite a lot (you can see my original review here) but it lacked a certain gravitas to really make it sing.

After a hugely successful run then and a couple more years of experience under their belts, most of that original cast has returned (with a few key additions) and wow - what a change. This cast is older, wiser, graver, funnier, and clicks much more soundly than they did before. I'm not going to summarize the plot in this review - again, you can always watch the inimitable Whoopi Goldberg's film original or read my previous review for that - but I do want to detail what's changed and what I really enjoyed.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

For starters, let's hit the cast. Regina Marie Williams is back in the title role of Deloris van Cartier and wowza what a return! I always enjoy her work (see my thoughts on the perfection that is Nina Simone: Four Women here), and she was good last time, but she really knocks it out of the park in this production. You can tell that Williams has had time to really get comfortable in Deloris's shoes, and the way Williams sashays through each line (and wallops her powerful voice through each song) left such a huge smile on my face. Williams has also clearly worked with the cast to update several of the key jokes, and there are some sly contemporary references here that had the whole audience in giggles.

Several other CDT stalwarts have returned. Norah Long is back as the inimitable Mother Superior and she is an absolute riot. Like Williams, Long is clearly much more comfortable in her role and anchors it with a steadfast gravitas that draws a firm line between her church's walls and the world of sin outside. Britta Ollmann remains fabulous as the shocking soprano Sister Mary Robert. Ollmann absolutely nailed her rendition of "The Life I Never Led" - seriously, it will give you chills, and she's a showstopper. Seri Johnson remains a fine and funky Sister Mary Lazarus, and the eternal Keith Rice is the gift that keeps on giving as a Kanye-sunglasses-clad Monsignor O'Hara.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
A few new additions really beef up the casts's potential and build this reprise into a towering crescendo. One of my all-time Chanhassen faves Therese Walth (aside: CDT, please, PLEASE reprise Hairspray with Therese - I would do anything to see it again) levels her trademark Nikki Blonsky comedic chops and booming voice at the heart of the role of Sister Mary Patrick, and she's a stitch. Fernando Collado is a welcome surprise as Pablo, especially after his recent lovely turn as Sonny in In The Heights (another piece I wouldn't mind seeing again). Andre Shoals is spot-on creepy as the evil Curtis. It's been a while since he was last seen at CDT, and he's a great choice for this part. Kasano Mwanza remains a scene-stealer as Curtis's nephew TJ, and once again I found myself mourning that he only had a few brief moments in which to shine.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
The costumes - for the most part nuns in habits, although there are a few choice show costumes sprinkled throughout - are essentially the same as before. The same is true of the set, although it drew me in more than it had circa 2015. The moment when the church's stain glassed windows turn "on" was especially poignant, and the set's economy never holds it back from letting you know exactly where we are in the story. The simplicity of all this musical's accouterments keep the focus on the cast's enormously talented vocals, a wise choice that needs no further explanation. There were a few moments that troubled me in the show, particularly the disrobing of a trans character that was used for laughs near the end of Act I; I wish and hope that the "man in a dress" trope can go away, especially as our trans family faces increasingly dangerous times. Be aware of those moments if you plan to go.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

I'll be honest: I was initially hoping the next show at CDT would be something I hadn't seen before, so I felt a little blue when it was announced that this was coming back. But on viewing I found myself quite moved by this production of Sister Act, bringing us full circle to the importance of societal context. To sit in my church (a darkened theater), communing with fellow patrons at the altar of a group of magnificently talented women who celebrate sisterhood; band together to protect themselves from the violence of bad men; who strive with unceasing personal sacrifice to bring more peace and beauty and faith to a world in pain - well, what message could possibly be more timely than that? I can't remember the last time I saw so many women on stage at once, and it was really inspiring to see such a critical mass; what a wonderful experience it must be for all of these actresses. There is such a pure joy to this show, which is bolstered by the clear camaraderie between these castmates, that truly served as a balm to the soul in our troubled times. We all deserve a little more peace of mind, and I can guarantee that you will find it here at Sister Act. Sister Act runs through the end of February 2018; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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