By Debbie L. Hochberg / Staff Writer
MILLBURN, NJ — There is something really fun — and funny — about watching 15 nuns dance around on a stage, with their habits swishing to and fro and their arms waving around in the air. It is just so un-nunlike — at least so different from the concept most of us have of prim and proper nunlike behavior. That is just one of the ingredients that makes “Sister Act” at the Paper Mill Playhouse so exceedingly entertaining and enjoyable. But there is so much more!
“Sister Act,” based on the 1992 hit movie of the same name, starring Whoopi Goldberg, is a feel-good, heart-warming musical comedy that tells the story of an aspiring disco singer, Deloris Van Cartier, played with a standout performance by Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, who witnesses a murder and then goes into hiding in a convent as the bad guys try to locate her to end her life.
At first resistant to the austere life in the convent, which consists mostly of pray-eat-sleep-pray-eat-sleep, Cartier stirs things up when Mother Superior, played by Broadway veteran Jennifer Allen, puts her in charge of the convent’s off-key, low-energy, sleepy choir. With her musical prowess and high-energy personality, Cartier charges up the choir and whips them into shape — making beautiful music together and becoming friends along the way.
With subplots about saving the church to which the convent is attached; the choir becoming so popular it ends up on television; a blossoming love story having to do with a cop; and the bad guys on the hunt for Cartier, there is a lot going on that adds to the lively nature of this musical comedy.
Ortiz, who is from Newark and is making her debut performance at the Paper Mill Playhouse, is fabulous in the lead role with her gorgeous, soulful voice and attractive stage presence. Allen, who played Mother Superior in “Sister Act” when it was on Broadway in 2011, shines as the grumpy head nun, who finally comes around to appreciate and embrace all the good Cartier brought to the convent. Her solo, “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” in which she belts out her gripes to God, is particularly memorable and shows off her vocal talents.
Broadway actor Akron Watson as Curtis Jackson, and his sidekicks, Todd A. Horman as Joey, Anthony Alfaro as Pablo and Ryan Gregory Thurman as TJ, are the bad guys we love to hate. TJ’s moonwalk was a cool surprise, and his one-liners sassing his Uncle Curtis, the lead bad guy, were delightful.
The good guy we love to love is the main cop, Lt. Eddie Souther, played by Broadway actor Jarran Muse. It turns out Souther knew Cartier way back in high school when she called him “Sweaty Eddie.” He has had a crush on her all this time and finally now has the chance to protect her and be her hero. Souther is such a sweet guy; throughout the show we are rooting for this couple to come together.
Belinda Allyn perfectly plays the shy and awkward Sister Mary Robert, who, with the help of Cartier, blossoms and gains her confidence. Allyn’s voice is spectacular. After I heard it, I whispered to my husband that she sounds like the quintessential Disney princess. Then, lo and behold, I later learned she played Belle in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Featuring original music by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, lyrics by three-time Tony Award nominee Glenn Slater and direction by four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, “Sister Act” is a winner from the start. Visually, with scenic design by Klara Zieglerova, this show is clever and gorgeous. The church set is stunning, with a giant, welcoming Virgin Mary toward the back and center of the stage, surrounded by stained glass windows and gigantic organ pipes coming down from the ceiling.
The lighting design by Charlie Morrison adds to the beauty and magic of the sets with the changing colors of the stained glass windows, and, toward the end of the show, the lighting also changes the colors of the nuns’ new sparkly habits. Those incredible habits, along with the other costumes created by costume designer Lez Brotherston, are a treat for the eyes.
Every actor in this show is tremendous, as is the supremely talented ensemble, whose singing and dancing are over-the-top fantastic.
With book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, wonderful choreography by Anthony Van Laast, being restaged by Janet Rothermel and direction restaged by Steven Beckler, “Sister Act” runs through June 26 and is a show you must see if you would like a delightful, action-packed evening with a happy ending.
Paper Mill Playhouse is committed to a safe return and continues to require masks for staff and audiences in the theater. For the complete and latest protocols, visit https://papermill.org/reopening-guidelines/.
Photos Courtesy of Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade and Jeremy Daniel