Old habits get new twist in Sister Act

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Barbara Ruben

Surrounded by dancing altar boys, Sister Mary Lazarus, played by Lynne Sigler, gets into the swing of things as choir director in the production of Sister Act now at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. The musical, based on the movie, is about a murder witness who shakes things up when she hides in a convent.
Photo courtesy of Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Disco balls, gold lamé, and fun with nuns. That’s what Toby’s Dinner Theatre serves up in an uproarious production of Sister Act. The musical version of the 1992 movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg transplants the action to late ‘70s Philadelphia, where the sisters of the Queen of Angels Church line dance Saturday Night Fever style.

While the setting of the musical, which premiered in London in 2009 and Broadway in 2011, has changed, the plot remains much the same.

Diva wannabe Deloris Van Cartier dreams of hitting the big time. Instead, the Mob puts a hit on her after she witnesses a murder. No matter that Deloris is the mistress of shiny-suited gangster Curtis Jackson, who now wants her dead.

The police place Deloris in a witness protection program of sorts — disguised as one of the sisters in a shapeless black habit and white wimple in a convent filled with nuns who warble off key.

Raising their voices

But there’s no repressing Deloris’s spirit, as she asks if there’s a smoking section of the nun’s dining room (“Yes, dear, and you’re headed for it,” quips Mother Superior), dashes across the street to the diner for a beer, habit flapping in the breeze, and revs up the church’s choir from 33 rpm to 45. She renames herself Mary Clarence, only to be told by Mother Superior that Clarence was the patron saint of prisoners.

Much of the action — and hilarity — comes from Deloris’s interaction with the choir. She wrests control of the singing from its bespeckled leader Mary Lazarus, and suddenly the choir is clapping and swaying and singing its new anthem, “Raise Your Voice.” She implores them to lift their voices to heaven as well as to more secular realms: “Raise a sweat! Raise a cheer! Raise it to the stratosphere.”

Church pews slide in on wheels, and a disco ball descends, its lights flashing little white angels that revolve around the room.

But Mary Clarence gets the nuns a bit too much notoriety with the choir’s newfound prowess. First they’re on the radio, and before they know it, Pope Paul VI is planning a visit. And that means Curtis and his gang aren’t far behind.

Luckily, Deloris has a timid police officer who harbors a crush on her. But will “Sweaty” Eddie be too nervous to save her?

Spirited cast

Ashley Johnson, who also starred in Toby’s productions of Memphis and The Wiz, lends her powerhouse voice to Deloris — whether she is praising the Lord or looking to escape the confines of the Queen of Angels. Her vocals do just what two of Sister Act’s major anthems ask: “Take Me to Heaven” and “Raise Your Voice.”

Her infectious energy infuses the show, from the first scene in a disco with her gold jump-suited backup singers, to the closing flamboyant and sparkling spectacle in the church.

She gets some help from composer Alan Menken, whose other shows include Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors and Newsies, and who collaborated on The Little Mermaid with Sister Act lyricist Glenn Slater. Some of the fun also comes from writers Cherie and Bill Steinkellner, who also lent their comedic talents to TV’s “Cheers.”

The cadre of sisters also adds to the glee. There’s young postulate Sister Mary Robert, played with wide-eyed innocence by Theresea Danskey, and Sister Mary Lazarus, aptly named, on the other end of the age spectrum, who is deftly portrayed by Lynne Sigler. She transitions from stern old-school choral leader to sprightly disco-era choir convert during the show.

And speaking of age, unlike many musicals, Toby’s has filled several other roles with agile over-50 actors. These include a no-nonsense Mother Superior who harbors a heart of gold (Lynn Sharp-Spears) and Monsignor O’Hara (Robert John Biedermann; look for him pulling double duty as the emcee before the show).

Another standout is younger cast member Hassani Allen, who gives crooning cop Sweaty Eddie a bashful charm as he woos Deloris and pledges to protect her. And DeCarlo Raspberry, as Deloris’s nefarious boyfriend, has all too few solos that feature his deep, smooth voice.

Minimalist scenery rolls on and off the stage in the center of Toby’s (which doubles as the floor where dinner is served before the show). There are a few wooden dining tables and a confession booth.  A table and telephone roll in to serve as the police station. Stained glass windows surround the perimeter of the theater.

Co-costume designers Lawrence B. Munsey (who also directs) and Mary Quinn have a field day delving into 1970s styles. Deloris covets a white fox fur like Donna Summer’s (which she gets in the final scene) and jump- and leisure suits abound.

The nun’s habits get more flashy as the show goes on, moving from somber black tied with a rope belt, to crimson, to a shimmering, light-catching fashion extravaganza in the finale that is nothing short of heavenly.

Sister Act continues at Toby’s Dinner Theatre through Nov. 13. Ticket prices (which include all-you-can-eat dinner or champagne brunch) are $59 Sunday through Thursday evenings and for Wednesday matinees. Friday evening performances are $60.50 and Saturday evening $62.

To buy tickets, call (301) 596-6161 or order online through Ticketmaster at www.ticket master.com/venue/172479. Learn more about the show at www.tobysdinnertheatre.com. The theater is located at 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, Md.