“Sister Act” is a musical adapted from the popular 1992 film of the same name, with new music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane. It was first produced regionally in Pasadena and Atlanta in 2006-2007 and moved to the London Palladium in 2009. One of the producers was Whoopi Goldberg who starred in the original film. She also replaced the Mother Superior for several West End performances. The musical was revised for Broadway with a new director (Jerry Zaks) and a book rewritten by Mr. Beane. The show was nominated for several Tony and Drama Desk Awards, including Best Musical. There have been two U.S. tours, three UK tours and an international tour. It continues to be popular, with a West End revival scheduled for 2024.
…Ashley Johnson-Moore [‘s]…voice was so powerful…Minnick and Rawlings working in tandem always guarantee a good production.
The plot of “Sister Act” is quite simple. A 1970s lounge singer witnesses a murder and, under protective custody, hides in a convent. She is encouraged to help the nuns with their choir where she ultimately finds her own true “voice.” Toby’s production is very rousing and enthusiastic, from the powerful first song “Take Me to Heaven” to the spectacular finale “Raise Your Voice.” The music ranges from disco to hymns and is sung by a first-rate cast with support from a chorus of nuns who must at first sing off-key (no easy task) and then gradually evolve into a well-blended, four-part harmonic group. Particular kudos go to Ashley Johnson-Moore in the lead role. (Read Susan Brall’s “A Quick 5” interview with Ashley Johnson-Moore.) Her voice was so powerful I was afraid my water glass would shatter! Lynn Sharp-Spears as Mother Superior sang beautifully and meaningfully—each of her songs adding depth and emotion to her character.
Gerald Jordan as the police desk chief played on the audience’s sympathy with an understated but growing romantic wistfulness reflected in his quiet manner and longing. In the second act, his amazing break-out song and dance number—with three almost instantaneous costume changes—was riveting. Mary Kate Brouillet as the novice, Sr. Mary Robert, sang “The Life I Never Led” with so much feeling given to the lyrics that I almost felt the applause was intrusive when she finished. Jordan B. Stocksdale, Brian Dauglash, and Anwar Thomas provided comic relief in song and dance as the antic sidekicks of Ryan Holmes who played the murderer. Mr. Holmes’ strong baritone voice gave a sinister, menacing interpretation to “When I Find My Baby.”
Mark Minnick continues his artistry with direction and choreography in this production. The dancing is innovative, clever, and uses the space to maximum benefit. Although we think of choreography as mainly leg and foot movement, Mark is also a “manu-ographer” with his direction of the actors’ use of hands and arms. He explained that when the nuns’ chorus was facing away from audience members, all you could see was the back of their black habits, so hand motions made an expressive difference to the enjoyment of the production. Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings has been associated with Toby’s for many years. He is really a music supervisor, conducting, arranging, orchestrating, and teaching the songs to the actors; contracting musicians for the small but effective orchestra; and playing keyboard, etc. Minnick and Rawlings working in tandem always guarantee a good production.
The supporting creative team added many wonderful theatrical effects to the show. The costume design by Sarah King and Carrie Seidman was innovative and spectacular. The nuns’ habits at the show’s beginning were the black and white wimple and tunic. Then, as the show progresses, we saw an apron of gold with heart designs over the tunic. Later, the habits are bright red and, in the finale, the entire habit is silver lamé. David A. Hopkins’ scenic design included a clever loft with a red organ embellished with gold design; well-crafted, fake stained glass windows above the audience; a bed that converts to a disco dance floor; confessional doors arranged for a chase scene; and a “rock-ola” juke box. Lynn Joslin’s lighting design included lamp sconces; electric candles on candelabra and hanging in chandelier style; backlighting for the stained glass windows; a beautiful blue rosette style window; and multicolored lights for the disco numbers. Mr. Hopkins and Jimmy Engelkemier designed projections for the screens on the walls above the audience that ranged from location photos of churches to disco balls, appropriate enhancements for each scene. Janine Sunday’s wig design mainly focused on the disco dancers, and Mark Smedley’s sound design ably controlled the range of musical styles.
Toby’s is a most pleasant way of spending an evening. Seating is reserved and your actor/waiter is waiting for your drink order. The buffet is ready with new items for every show plus the standard offerings customers look forward to. Every seat has a full view of the production area. There is attentive and efficient service during the meal and at intermission—and plenty of parking. In a region that once had several dinner theatres, only Toby’s has remained and stood the test of time. For that, I genuflect, cross myself, and say ‘amen!’
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Fog, haze, and strobe effects.
“Sister Act” runs through November 5, 2023 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Roadd, Columbia MD 21044. Tickets can be purchased from the Box Office, Sunday-Monday, from 10 am – 8 pm by calling 410-730-8311, or go online.