'Sister Act' Nuns Make Heavenly Music

The primary “lost chords” in the theatrical musical based on (and named after) the hit 1992 film “Sister Act” are the original pop songs which the primary character turned into pop hymns.

The South Bend Civic Theatre production, which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Auditorium, features an original score (mostly mediocre) by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater and a much-revised book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane.

The plot is much the same as the film with Danae Watson as aspiring lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier, a role that, unfortunately for anyone who fills it, lies firmly in the shadow of the film’s star Whoopi Goldberg.

Sister Act  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAs it opens, Deloris is auditioning for a job in the club owned by her boyfriend gangster Curtis Jackson (Allen Roberts II). Angered by his dismissal, she goes to return his gift of a fur piece originally owned by his wife and, with unfortunate timing, witnesses his murder of an “associate” he believes talked about him to the police.

Immediately, Deloris is the object of a murderous search by Curtis and his gang — Joey (Annie Bretz), TJ (Brielle Hall) and Pablo (Cristian Marquez). She runs to the police and finds Lt. Eddie Souther (George Spohter), an old school friend, who immediately puts her in police protection — in a local convent.

She is as unhappy to be there as the Mother Superior (Patty Noonan) is to have her. As Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris is definitely a square peg in a round hole until she is assigned to the mostly out-of-tune convent choir.

With Sister Mary Patrick (Laura Martin), novice Sister Mary Robert (Erin Joines) and current choir leader Sister Mary Lazarus (Connie Chalko), she trains the sisters to sing in tune and in time and they soon add an up-tempo hymn to their Sunday repertoire, much to the horror of the Mother Superior and the delight of Monsignor O’Hara (William Loring), who sees the choir’s new success as a way to revive the about-to-be-demolished church.

This is, indeed, where things look up in “Sister Act.” When the sisters raise their voices in song, the energy level goes heaven-ward and it’s definitely difficult to keep from at least toe-tapping if not clapping in rhythm.

The infectious energy of the nuns’ ensemble makes the price of a ticket more than worthwhile.

sister Act  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreMusical highlights include the three hoods’ “Lady in The Long Black Dress.” the rejuvenated choir’s “Saturday Morning Fever,” Noonan’s retreat “Haven’t Got A Prayer,” and Joines’ plea for guidance “The Life I Never Led.” A standout is the solo work delivered by Calko whose comic delivery is literally head and shoulders above the rest.

Directors Stephen and Stephanie Salisbury keep the pace as brisk as possible and the music right on track in a cast in which many are young stage first-timers and play two and three characters.

The three “hoods, obviously roles written for men, are played here by one man and two women. It works well and is a testimony to doing the best with those who audition, a landmark of community theater. Their trio, “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” delivered on the hunt for Deloris, received well-deserved and sustained applause.

David Chudzynski’s set design goes from secular to sacred with ease but set changes need some rehearsal to achieve the quietest transition possible.

The lingering problem of hearing dialogue is still present in the large, domed Wilson Auditorium although not as obvious in a musical as a straight play. One hopes it will continue to improve.

“SISTER ACT” plays through Oct.1 in the Wilson Auditorium, 215 W. Madison St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112.

Humor, Love In ECT Season Opener

There is not a lot of physical action in “Finishing School,” the award-winning original play that opened the Elkhart Civic Theatre 2017-18 season Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House.

This is not surprising.

The setting, to quote playwright Elaine Liner, is “a small park with a bench next to a nice senior living facility in Texas.” The two male members of the four-person cast are residents. — and seniors — hence the minimal action.

There is, however, a good deal of dialogue, most of which drew resounding laughter from the near capacity audience.

No surprise there either.

“Finishing School” is described as “A two-act comedy about life’s second act.” Definitely an accurate description. Its appeal, however, easily spans generations.

Al (Dave Dufour) is in his late ‘60s, a fairly recent resident moved in by his son and daughter-in-law, a fact that he clearly resents.

His new best pal is Wizzer (Gail Janssen), who is hovering around 90, confined to a wheel chair and has a tendency to drop off to sleep “every few minutes.”

Their daily routine consists of reading the obituary page, discussing other residents and, with Al as “pusher,” trips to the Dollar Store for soda and candy bars and avoiding “the cave,” aka the Memory Care Cove, destination for those with fading recall.

The relationship between the two is warmly combative, obviously bonded in the shared trials of geriatrics and instantly protective.

Testing its strength is the appearance of Minnie McManus, (Melissa Auvil), 30ish, daughter of a recently deceased resident. She arrives to meet her mother to deal with her father’s belongings and strikes up a friendly conversation with Al, Wizzer being mostly asleep, who is definitely attracted.

A new dimension is added when Al meets Minnie’s mom, Shirley (Sandra Woodiwiss), and age becomes less of a problem.

Finishing School Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INThroughout, the conversations between Al and Wizzer offer audience members the opportunity to laugh loud and long at subjects that are not often laughable. When tossed around by two elderly gents, the humor definitely rises to the top and offers a universal release.

Obviously, a play in which three of the four characters are past the half-century mark requires actors at least close to the characters’ ages. Old age makeup can only do so much.

This means the performers must be able to deal with one of the pitfalls of old age, sometimes any age — faulty memory.

On opening night, at least, the gaps signaling searches for lines were, for the most part, well-covered, with the playwright’s naturally easy language surviving to trigger another laugh.

The bulk of dialogue is carried by Dufour, who not only has most of the short, snappy comebacks but delivers dauntingly long patches of dialogue that uncover the man behind the comedian. He handles all very well.

Finishing School Elkhart Civic Theatre Elkhart INJanssen’s difficult assignment is to nod off believably, all the while being alert to his wakeup lines., an assignment even more difficult considering the similarity of his dialogue. Wizzer’s recounting of his memory test engenders one of the biggest and most sustained laughs in the show.

Some of the funniest bits are offered off stage as The Voice of the senior facility recites daily menus, entertainment options and rules, many of which are too familiar.

Newcomers Auvil and Woodiwiss show no signs of being newcomers to the ECT stage, creating warm and believable characters who offer a look at the outside of senior living.

Director Kevin Egelsky sets a gentle pace for the elderly characters which gives the audience permission to fully enjoy Liner’s sometimes too-close-for-comfort dialogue.

As always, the set designed and built by artistic director John Shoup is just right, with Texas trees and mid-century-era streetlights obvious just over the stone wall of the nearby park.

Unlike other more harsh depictions of senior facility life, “Finishing School” offers an up-side that allows one to look at what’s next for us all with humor and love.

“’FINISHING SCHOOL” plays at 7:30 p,m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on SR120 in Bristol. For reservations, call 848-4116 or visit elkhartcivictheatre.org.

Musical Trio Turns Back Time

It was a musical homecoming for two of the performers in “The Vegas Rat Pack,” which opened a one-week run Tuesday at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI.

Bruce Hammond and Seth Abrams, both Barnies during the 1990’s, are center stage as two music legends — Frank Sinatra (Hammond) and Dean Martin (Abrams). Completing the famous trio in the show conceived by Hammond and Abrams is Kenny Jones as the multi-talented Sammy Davis Jr.

Their original show offered audience members their own musical homecoming, as the three — individually and together — offered a look back at the songs they made famous, many of which have become an integral part the American songbook.

All three have strong voices and obviously enjoy reinventing the melodies which easily carried listeners back to the 1950s-60s.

It was an unashamedly nostalgic program, filled with pop ballads, show tunes and up tempo songs which frequently found audience members singing (or hmming) along.

It was that kind of an evening.

After a down-home opening by Barn regular Charlie King and his guitar, the trio offered a rousing rendition of “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die” followed by “Luck Be A Lady,” then turned the spotlight over to Abrams.

Most familiar of Dino’s hits in this segment were “That’s Amore,” “Ain’t That A Kick in The Head” and “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Abrams was much more active than the laid-back ccrooner but his forays into the audience were obviously popular.

Vegas Rat Pack  The Barn Theatre Ajugusta MI“Candy Man” and “What Kind of Fool Am I” were standouts when Jones took the stage, horn-rimmed glasses and all. His time center stage also featured impersonations including Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante and his solo finale was one of Davis’ musical trademarks, “Mr. Bojangles.”

Jones was an enthusiastic favorite of the audience and, like Hammond, came close to capturing the essence of Davis’ persona.

The Chairman of the Board — Francis Albert Sinatra — took the spotlight for a good deal of the second act and,

when MC King introduced his set as “saving the best for last,” he was not exaggerating too much.

The quiet command of the stage that Sinatra exuded was replicated here, as was the silky voice that made every phrase sound effortless.

From his extensive repertoire came melodies that turned back the time clock and made this listener long for that a smoother, sweeter time. “Come Fly With Me,” “One For My Baby,” “Strangers In The Night,” “Witchcraft,” “All The Way,” “Chicago” (recreated as “Augusta”), “That’s Life” and “New York, New York” were just a few of the reasons he could have gone on singing all night.

Personally, I could have used more music rather than the rather lame comedy bits that peppered the script.

The band, made up of local musicians under the direction of John Jay Espino, offered instrumental support and the minimal stage set left a lot of room for the music.

“THE VEGAS RAT PACK” plays through Sunday in The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121. There is special pricing for this show only.