Mercury Theatre’s Sister Act will take you to heaven

It had been a long time since I last saw Sister Act onstage and, to be honest, I had absolutely forgotten just how enjoyable it is. This musical, with songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, is, based on the hilariously joyous Whoopi Goldberg film of 1992 that focuses on a professional singer hiding from the mob in a convent. Less frequently performed in recent years, at least in Chicago, it is one of those plays that practically guarantees a good time for its audiences, and the new production of Mercury Theatre is about as wonderful an evening of theatre that you could possibly want.

The first play produced under new Artistic Director Christopher Chase Carter, Sister Act jump-starts a real feel-good season (future productions include Women of Soul, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Clue). Carter, director Reneisha Jone’ne Jenkins, and the cast have a great time with this show, with the result that the audience, at least on opening night, was able to dive into it with lots of vocal callbacks and jubilation.

The play is structured as a philosophical conflict between disco diva Deloris (Alexis J. Roston), who finds herself revitalizing the moribund convent choir with her modern repertoire and dance moves, and the conservative Mother Superior of the convent (Jane Grebeck-Brewer), who views Deloris as some kind of agent of Satan who has somehow infiltrated her staid enclave and is suddenly bringing all sorts of secular nonsense into the lives of the other sisters. Between Roston’s big, bold, exciting performances of songs like “Fabulous, Baby!” and “Take Me to Heaven” and Grebeck-Brewer’s more introspective—but often quite humorous—prayers to God for intercession, we see both sides of a modernization argument that probably began with Vatican II. (The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane leans heavily, as you’d guess, in the direction of the more joyful music, which all of the other convent members and even the parish priest-in a wonderfully droll comic turn by Ed Kross—totally buys into.)

A lot of this completely depends on the energy and likability of Deloris, and Roston’s performance here is totally charming. Deloris as a diva in her own mind—”Fabulous, Baby!” is all about how great she thinks she is—but Roston makes it clear that she cares a lot for others as well. It is very easy to believe how quickly the sisters accept and begin to love her, and it is not just her choral prowess, the dance moves she teaches them—credit Carter’s fun choreography—and the fun they are now having that attaches them to her.

Speaking of those other members of the “sister act,” there are a few totally outstanding performances among them. Isabella Andrews shines as the novice Sister Mary Robert, a shy, obedient woman who dedicated herself to the life of a nun mostly because it seems a way to hide from life. Once brought out of her shell by Deloris, Mary Robert turns into a powerhouse in her own right. Andrews’ performance of “The Life I’ve Never Led” in Act Two is both poignant and hopeful, a difficult balance that she brings out brilliantly. Another memorable (and very funny) performance is by Jenny Rudnick as Sister Mary Lazarus, an older nun who finds her own inner showperson through Deloris and becomes one of her biggest supporters.

The male leads, too, are having a lot of fun. Kross, as I have mentioned, plays a Monsignor O’Hara who is a bit of a wallflower at the start and, once the new music begins bringing success to his church, dives into it headfirst. (His Act II performances are laugh-out-loud funny.) Gilbert Domally is ingratiating as Eddie, the policeman trying to protect Deloris, his high school crush. Eddie is a quiet, unassuming man who once couldn’t bring himself to pull his gun in an emergency situation. Domally’s “I Could Be That Guy” allows him to playfully showcase his ongoing desire for Deloris (and allows Costume Designer Marquecia Jordan, whose work in this show is fantastic, to have some fun with pull-away costumes). Even bad guy Curtis (an ominous Denzel Tsopnang) gets his chance to have some musical fun. His “When I Find My Baby” somehow manages to make obsessive and toxic masculinity humorous.

This is just a wonderful show. Period. You *will* have a great time. With theatre and theatregoers still slowly coming back from the pandemic shut-down, there are quite a few shows right now that clearly have been chosen for their energetic entertainment appeal. Mercury’s Sister Act is one of the best of them.

Sister Act plays through Jan 2. Tickets are available here.

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