How did she do it? How did Reneisha Jenkins, making her directorial debut, work a miracle with her Mercury Theater production of “Sister Act”? How did she turn this show – a popular, easily entertaining, but essentially silly musical about gangsters, a showbiz fighter, and nuns in a Catholic convent – into a work that can easily make you laugh, but that generates finally heartfelt tears and exuberant cheers for each of its many eccentric characters?
Of course the musical bones are strong, with a catchy (circa 1970s) retro-pop score by Alan Menken (the songwriter behind hit musicals such as “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Newsies”), plus an intelligent character – defining lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a humorous but meaningful book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and Douglas Carter Beane.
But that’s the direction of Jenkins, as well as the wonderfully playful and pivoting choreography of Christopher Chase Carter (the immensely talented new artistic director of Mercury), and the impeccable musical direction of keyboardist Diana Lawrence and her musicians (Isabella Isherwood, Jeff Harris and Lindsay Williams) who infused the show with genuine emotional warmth as well as laughter-generating irreverence and comedic burst.
And then there’s the uniformly sensational cast led by irrepressible Alexis J. Roston, whose powerful voice and fierce energy give depth and meaning to her character, Deloris Van Cartier – a starry-dreamed club singer. who is involved with Curtis Jackson (Denzel Tsopnang), the gangster and rat of a married man who owns the Philadelphia nightclub where she works, uses her gun with abandon and keeps an oppressive bridle over her career dreams.
When she witnesses the brutal murder of one of her henchmen, she knows she is in trouble and goes to the police station where the office worker turns out to be an old school friend nicknamed “Sweaty Eddie”. (It is played to perfection by Gilbert Domally, who performs the song “I could be that guy.”) A shy boy who has long had a crush on Deloris, he has the idea of ââhiding her safely in the least. probable cases. places – a financially pressured convent connected to a church that risks being sold to a pair of antique dealers because it can no longer attract a congregation.
Of course, Deloris isn’t cut out for convent life, and the Mother Superior (in a formidable and ideally sardonic turn from Jane Grebeck-Brewer) is not at all happy with the way the singer’s mundane ways. influence the sisters. But once Deloris manages to put the nuns singing on the key, encourages them to rock to the beat, and exalts their voices as a spiritual force (and a tremendous magnet for crowds of financially enhanced parishioners), there’s a feeling to the beat. times of worship and rebellion in the air. And the news of a visit from Pope John Paul VI only raises the bar.
Along the way, there is a breathtaking performance by Isabella Andrews as Mary Robert, the young postulant of the convent whose exposure to Deloris prompts her to declare her need for freedom and self-determination in “The Life That I Do. ‘ve never led â, a performance is a religious experience all its own. Leah Morrow, Jenny Rudnick, Nicole Cready, and Nancy Wagner successfully play other nuns – of all ages and temperaments.
Throughout, Ed Kross brings a wonderfully funny and subtly subversive attitude to the role of the pragmatic and slightly amused Bishop O’Hara who, like Deloris (and as heretical as it sounds), understands that there are common elements in the religious ceremony and shows Business. Plus, as the trio of young criminals who work for Curtis, Marcus Jackson (as Joey), Ruben Castro (as Pablo), and Austin Nelson Jr. (as TJ) sing and dance till the storm. The same goes for Deloris’ replacements played by Nicole Armold and Aalon Smith.
But it’s Roston, with its megawatt spark and emotional exuberance, that continually lights up the scene, whether it’s bonding with his new “sisters,” falling in love with Eddie, or discovering his own. transformation and inspire transformation in all whose lives it touches.
The show is enhanced by sets by Angela Weber Miller, lighting by Jackie Fox, video by G. “Max” Maxin IV, costumes by Marquecia Jordan and wigs by Rueben D. Echoles, and the historic Mercury 280-seat theater. Not only has it come back to life after its pandemic shutdown, it has already started to thrive under Carter’s leadership. Not only did he make Jenkins a real talent, but he also realized that “Sister Act” was an ideally cheerful way to reopen and – to borrow a song title from the series – from “Spread the Love Around” .
“Sister Act” runs through January 2 at the Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave. For tickets, visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Note: Upcoming shows at the Mercury include “Women of Soul” (January 27-March 13, 2022), a tribute to singers such as Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Janis Joplin and others, writes and directed by Daryl D. Brooks (whose formidable production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” is currently underway at the Porchlight Music Theater); “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (June 10-August 7, 2022), the jukebox musical from Stephen Elliott and Allan Scott (based on the MGM movie) about a trio of Sydney-based musicians bringing a show to the outback Australian in a battered old bus, directed and choreographed by Carter; and “Clue: On Stage” (August 26-October 30, 2022), a mysterious prank and murder based on the 1985 Paramount film and the Hasbro game, which will be directed by Walter Stearn, executive producer of Mercury. Additional events are planned for the Venus Cabaret theater adjacent to the theater.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic