A review by Wanda Sabir
The setting is a quaint old church in San Francisco about to close if attendance doesn’t increase. In walks Detective Eddie (Jarrett Holley) with Deloris Van Cartier (Branden Noel Thomas) as if on cue. Deloris needs witness protection. What better place to hide her than a church, right? Well, maybe if the witness weren’t such a talented, beautiful rambunctious diva.
Branden Noel Thomas is a fabulous Deloris. Coy, innocent and beautiful, his Deloris undervalues herself, a woman with so much talent she doesn’t need a married gangster’s support. Thomas hits notes only NASA spacecraft has touched prior to this show (smile). Swinging and shaking all the spots that make quiet money fall from hands into collection plates, it is not surprising when the Pope asks for an audience with this choir that is making headlines in national and local news.
Deloris’s former lover, Curtis Shank (portrayed by a wonderful Crystal Liu) says he knows what’s best for her, while Eddie, whom Deloris has known since childhood, wishes “[He] Could Be That Guy.” Eddie (Jarrett Holley), who is a cop without a gun, might have a chance this go-round as Deloris settles in and straightens her priorities. The convent and its austere discipline is something Deloris comes to appreciate along with her new friends or sisters.
She’s hiding out, right? Hum. Not for long. Curtis finds his lover and sends his boys in to get her. Joey (Joyce Domanico-Huh), Erney (Paul Loper) and T.J.’s (John Charles Quimpo) performance of “Lady in the Long Black Dress” is a show stopper, as is Curtis’s “When I Find My Baby.” My favorite song is “Take Me to Heaven” and “Spread the Love Around” – it’s all love. Nothing else matters (smile).
There are so many near misses. Deloris is caught sneaking out the first evening she is at the church to the local pub next door for a meal. Her pious posse follow her. Not much happens at the convent; Deloris is a fun diversion. Besides these gals like her. All Deloris knows about Catholicism she learned in parochial school – not much, just confession and repentance. What she learns from these sisters, she sings in “Sister Act,” is a lot more.
Monsignor (actor Joyce Domanico-Huh) loves the way Deloris has invigorated the service with popular songs. Her appreciation tempers Mother Superior’s (actor Kim K. Larsen) dismissal despite the increased attendance and contributions. Mother Superior finally admits that, for the church to reach the people, it needs to accept people as they are without judgement.
From the first time Deloris sings “Heaven” for Curtis to the next time she sings it for the church, the song changes. What a difference in perspective Deloris develops between the top of the first act to the end of Act One. Deloris’s journey is juxtaposed to that of a Mother Superior who sings of “Walls,” and confesses she “[Hasn’t] Got a Prayer.” Apathy and disbelief shift powerfully as these two women embrace each other. Success is really in the collective “Sister Act,” the show’s thesis and also a song.
Good music – Deloris’s hook – is one not many can disentangle. Mary Robert (actor Abigail Campbell), a novice with a surprisingly beautiful voice, asks Deloris how does one know which life is for her. She sings she always did what she was told and now questions the “Life [She] Never Led.” Sister Mary Robert and her sisters are quite feisty and give the bad guys a fight they hadn’t imagined. Yes, Sister Act has suspense, murder, intent to murder and even a love story – all inviting laugher and smiles.
Deloris tells the women at their first rehearsal that they need to sing with confidence, to sing as if they believe it. Deloris points out to each of her sisters their gifts which were not acknowledged in a tradition where homogeneity is extolled. Deloris’s words become her new script, her new life. Sister Act is a sweet love story that will have you discreetly wiping away tears during the encore.
I couldn’t imagine such a church in Oakland, where the Black Catholic community has such a strong presence, given the visionary leadership of Father Jay Matthews (Oct. 25, 1948-March 30, 2019), the first African American priest to be ordained in Northern California. Father Jay “played a key role in the emergence of the Black Catholic movement in the Diocese of Oakland. This movement came to life in the wake of the Black Power Movement and developments following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as Black Catholics urged the church to address the needs of their community” (obits at Cathedral of Christ Light).
I wondered if Queen of Angels Church knew St. Columba Church in Oakland, which has an awesome choir. With all the publicity, Bay Area Catholic choirs should meet (smile). Branden Noel Thomas is well worth the travel and the ticket. He is a vision in a red dress with black patent heels. He rocks the habit too.
Until now, all this writer knew was Whoopi Goldberg’s film (1992) by the same title. The musical (2006), which is based on the film, is awesome and for those who know the Broadway score with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. In this production, audiences are treated to some new and old classics.
Theatre Rhinoceros, the longest running LGBT theatre anywhere, has a winner on its hands with “Sister Act, the Musical,” directed by Aejay Mitchell, who also choreographed the work, musical direction by Tammy Hall. The run is a short three weeks, Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday, also 3 p.m., through June 1, 2019, at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Visit www.TheRhino.org or call 1-800-838-3006. Did I mention there is a live band? Yep, more reason to run to the performances, which might sell out.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.