Pictured: Ensemble of SISTER ACT the musical. Photo by Vida Bikales.
By Abigail Trabue
What do you get when you take a funky black woman, a violent white mobster boyfriend, a goofy cop suffering from unrequited love, and a bunch of uptight white Nuns led by a Mother Superior who really doesn’t like all that funky music? Well, you get SISTER ACT (the musical).
Based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, this musical adaptation with music by Alen Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane) is closing out the Barn Players time in the Mission, KS space having recently announced a move to the Arts Asylum where they’ll be an artist in residence company.
The story of SISTER ACT is pretty cut and dry, and under Director/Choreographer Guy Gardner and Musical Director James Levy, this production works hard to bring the praise and make us shout “hallelujah,” and for the most part the cast succeeds, especially Allison Jones (Delores Van Cartier). Jones, whose career is certainly about to skyrocket (she’ll be taking on the role of Ti Moune in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND with Spinning Tree Theatre in the spring) has powerhouse vocals, solid comedic timing and evokes plenty of Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Beyoncé and Whoopi Goldberg inside a character who’s story arch is rather predictable and cliché.
But Jones isn’t the only up and coming sister in this production. There’s plenty of talent on stage putting forth copious amounts of energy trying to make a problematic script work, however, there were a few standouts. Ramsey Self (Sister Mary Robert) strikes just the right balance between longing for more, standing up for herself and finding joy in what she has. Self nearly steals the second act with “The Life I Never Led.” She has a natural grace on stage and holy smokes can that woman belt. Between her number and Jones’ “Sister Act” number, the second act eclipses the first in terms of clear objectives and real character emotions and self-discovery.
Julian Rivera (Tina/Pablo) is a fantastic dancer, and along with Josh Arellano (Joey) and Anne Haines (TJ) brings the goofy hilarity in “Lady In The Long Black Dress,” a number that’s completely pointless in the show, but nevertheless the trio brings the comedy and the fun. Rivera naturally draws your eye as a dancer and he too will be one to watch in the next few years.
Ruth Bigus as Mother Superior does her best to keep the righteous mother honest, a difficult task, given some of the lines book writers Steinkeller and Beane throw her character. We see Mother Superior struggle to accept and embrace change, but what we don’t get enough of is when that struggle starts to soften and her attitude towards Delores starts to change. It’s an incredibly abrupt beat change, and Bigus does a lovely job of navigating it, but again, so much of what is wrong with this show falls at the feet of the book writers.
And while the vocals and the light-hearted fun of Barn’s production are there, there are elements of SISTER ACT I’ll never be able to reconcile no matter how incredible the production. It suffers at the hands of a poorly constructed script that uses stereotypes and cheap laughs to build the world around Delores and the Sisters. I’m not sure if the creators felt we’d be more willing to accept these tropes if we plucked them out of the 90s and put them in the 70s, but it just doesn’t work. Making differently-abled individuals the butt of a joke and perpetuating racial and sexual stereotypes are devices long past their expiration date, and SISTER ACT, while set in the 70s, is fairly new material, having had its regional premiere in 2006 and its Broadway premiere in 2011.
It’s a reminder that we have a long way to go in Musical Theater.
I look forward to The Barn Players future productions. I get the sense this is a company ready to take the next step in their artistic development. The talent and drive is there and on a cold Friday night the house was full and supportive, even if the material wasn’t at the level we all know The Barn is capable of producing.
SISTER ACT runs through November 19th. For more information visit thebarnplayers.org.