By Mae Hunt
I went in completely blind to The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of “Sister Act,” having never seen the original 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Before the curtain opened, I overheard two people gushing about how much they adored the original film and feared I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the show without prior knowledge of the source material. My fears evaporated completely halfway through Act I, when the show’s ensemble of nun characters broke into the first of several choreographed dance numbers. “Sister Act” is the type of lighthearted, energetic fun that anyone can enjoy.
The LTA production, produced by Kadira Coley and Alan Wray, stars Ashley Williams as Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer in 1970s Philadelphia who becomes the key witness in a murder case and is placed in protective custody in the convent of a financially struggling Catholic church. Deloris initially detests the rigid lifestyle of a nun, but she finds her calling when she takes over the out-of-tune choir and transforms the nuns into singing, dancing sensations.
It’s undeniable that Williams stole the show with her performance as Deloris. She sparkles at the center of the production, shining like a disco ball even when she trades in her sequin gowns for a nun’s habit. The role is vocally demanding, but Williams glides through her solo numbers without missing a beat – or a note. In the opening number, she sings, “I’m fabulous, baby,” and it rings less like an opinion and more like a statement of fact. Beyond her vocal performance – her vocals alone are reason enough to see the show – Williams imbues Deloris with emotional depth and effortless charisma. I was always rooting for her, even when her hijinks landed her in some sticky situations.
When a show has a scene-stealing protagonist like Deloris, it’s entertaining to watch the other characters attempt to reel her in. Christine Maxted’s performance as the stern, sardonic Mother Superior is the perfect foil for Williams’ diva character. She is completely believable as a hardheaded nun with zero tolerance for nonsense, and her beautiful voice helps drive home the strength of her religious convictions.
Although she spends most of the play making a conscious effort to stop Deloris from shining, Mother Superior still manages to be sympathetic and endearing. The dry humor that Maxted brings to the role made her scenes some of my favorites in the show.
In fact, almost all of the characters in “Sister Act” are likable. Allison Meyer definitely stands out with her charming portrayal of shy novitiate Sister Mary Robert, who finds her voice throughout the course of the story. The ensemble cast of nuns bring an infectious energy to every scene they’re in, and their vocal harmonies, especially during the religious hymns, are impressive. Even the show’s main villains, corrupt club owner Curtis (Paul Caffrey) and his band of goons (Luke Martin, Evan Zimmerman, Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo and Alonzo Cook), are so goofy and over-the-top sleazy that they’re charming.
Other positive aspects of “Sister Act” include the live orchestra, led by music director and conductor Colin Taylor, which was a treat as always. The work of costume designers Jean Schlicting and Kit Sibley impressed me with the subtle details they added to each nun’s uniform, distinguishing each as a unique character even though they were all basically wearing the same dress. Excellent choreography by Kathleen McCormack.
The most surprising element of the production was the enormous projector screen that hung upstage, serving as a substitute for a more traditional set build. Still images of interiors and exteriors were projected onto the screen to communicate a scene’s setting. Director Mike J. Baker Jr. also made use of pre-filmed video cut scenes, which moved the story along when necessary, and jazzy animations, which served to complement various songs.
In his director’s notes for the show, Baker explains the difficulty a box set community theater like the Little Theatre of Alexandria faces when staging a production like “Sister Act,” which initially premiered on the West End with more than 30 set changes and four minutes of chase scenes. The screen makes such an elaborate undertaking much easier for the crew at Little Theatre to pull off. So, while I did miss the painted backdrops I associate with live theater, it’s clear the “Sister Act” team made the right choice considering the scope of the production.
Besides, “Sister Act” is about a group of nuns learning to perfect disco dance moves so they can perform in sequin-adorned habits for the Pope. I was never in danger of being under the impression I was in a real church anyway. One of the best things about “Sister Act” is that it never takes itself too seriously – it invites the audience to sit back, laugh and enjoy some heavenly vocal performances.
If you’re going:
Where: Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria, 22314
When: Through Feb. 4.
Tickets: Online at thelittletheatre.com or by calling the box office at 703-683-0496
The writer, a lifelong Alexandrian, works in the fine arts industry. She is an award-winning playwright who was former editor-inchief and fine arts editor of the Kenyan Collegian.