The Sisters singing "Take Me to Heaven"

Review: Sister Act at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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Spread the news! It’s time to rock the pews! Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia has caught Sunday morning fever! And it’s burning wild with happiness as Sister Act, the five-time Tony Award-Nominated musical, flocks with glory into the intimate theatre-in-the-round space under the Direction of Lawrence B. Munsey. With Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and spectacular Choreography by Helen Hayes Award-Winner Mark Minnick, this soulful feel-good musical will lift your spirits straight up to heaven and create an excitingly memorable theatrical experience for everyone in attendance.

Ashley Johnson (left) as Deloris Van Cartier and Hasani Allen (right) as Sweaty Eddie in Sister ActJeri Tidwell Photography
Robert Biedermann 125 (left) as Monsignor O’Hara with Lynn Sharpe-Spears (center) as Mother Superior and Ashley Johnson (right) as Sister Mary Clarence

Transforming Toby’s intimate performance venue into a holy convent, Resident Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins brings the walls of the cloister snuggly into the unique in-the-round space with reverently pious panache. It’s the stained glass windows and the stone arch columns that give the ceiling that vaulted feeling, capturing the essence of a long-standing church building. The real theatrical magic comes from Hopkins’ lighting design with the show. Formulating a hybrid between a disco concert and a majestic church service, Hopkins reflects the colors of the stained glass onto various set pieces and even the convent floor in a fashion that harkens back to the glory of Sunday morning sunlight streaming into the vestibule.

God never saw so much glamour among the little sisters of the cloth as he’s seeing with the Costume Design work of Lawrence B. Munsey and Mary Quinn. Glitzy sequins are all the rage in Catholic couture for the big finale numbers as both Munsey and Quinn showcase their ability to razzle dazzle even the drabbest of habits. Shimmery gold is featured heavily throughout, a nod to the play’s era, both at the beginning of the show in Deloris’ backup dancers’ costumes and again later in the performance with the outrageously suave gold lamé jumpsuits featured in “Fabulous, Baby! (Reprise).” Sleek and chic, c’est magnifique— even the breakaway costumes deserve praise for both their impressive construction and impeccable execution. Keep an eye out for Munsey and Quinn’s confidence-building boots as well, their purple hue would make even Father Mulcahy proud.  

Ashley Johnson (left) as Deloris Van Cartier and Hasani Allen (right) as Sweaty Eddie in Sister ActJeri Tidwell Photography
Ashley Johnson (left) as Deloris Van Cartier and Hasani Allen (right) as Sweaty Eddie in Sister Act

Munsey, who also lays claim to the title of Director, encourages an organic and wholly natural vibe of fun and family among the cast, which reads clearly on the stage, especially so with the sisters inside the convent. Bursting with energy even before Deloris Van Cartier inspires a soulful revolution inside the confines of the cloister, the nuns are teeming with a reverent appreciation for life and sisterhood; this is a feeling that permeates the entire cast and really brings them together in a truly honest and convivial fashion, making the performances that much more enjoyable.

Resonating through the rafters as the heart and soul of the show, Mark Minnick’s outstanding Choreography is a blessing from above, giving the performance a rejuvenating and enthusiastic energy that carries from one number to the next, keeping those holy sisters rolling from the show’s open through to its conclusion. Minnick deftly manipulates the scenic blocking throughout the performance as well, making processionals, entrances and exits, even simple character crosses an intricate dance all its own. Disco-era dance moves populate each of the larger numbers with Minnick molding them around the dancing ensemble and playing to the strength of the space.

Ashley Johnson (center) as Deloris Van Cartier and her sisters in Sister Act at Toby's Dinner Theatre Amanda N. Gunther
Ashley Johnson (center) as Deloris Van Cartier and her sisters in Sister Act at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Spinning cross-shaped formations, rotating door dances, there’s even a nun-kick line! The dance routines inspire a heart-pounding joy that makes all watching want to raise up and move along to these funky and fantastic grooves. Honing in on the funky style of the 70’s for numbers like “When I Find My Baby” and “Lady in the Long Black Dress”, Minnick channels the hustling spirit of the lively disco dance floor and balances these choreographic samplings against active and soulfully-infused routines enacted by the sisters, with “Sunday Morning Fever” being one of the most notable over the course of the evening. With Minnick’s choreography as a guiding beacon to navigate the devil of a book (by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner) the production’s prayers have been answered.

Featured heavily and often throughout Minnick’s intricate routines, which truly bring an added level of polish and finesse to the production, are the ensemble of movers, shakers, and 70’s love makers! Whether it’s the altar boys-turned-disco ducks David Jennings, Andre Hinds, Darren McDonnell, and Jeffrey Shankle sashaying and pelvic-popping their way through “Fabulous, Baby! (Reprise)” or the hip-rolling routine which showcases Samantha McEwin Deininger and Ashley K. Nicholas during “Take Me to Heaven”, each of these motivated movers finds their step and blazes their way to dancetastic glory.

(L to R) The Fabulous Baby Dancers: Ashley K. Nicholas, MaryKate Brouillet, Andre Hinds (unseen), Darren McDonnell, Erica Clare, and Rachel KempJeri Tidwell Photography
(L to R) The Fabulous Baby Dancers: Ashley K. Nicholas, MaryKate Brouillet, Andre Hinds (unseen), Darren McDonnell, Erica Clare, and Rachel Kemp

Raising their voices straight up to the heavens above, the ensemble is loaded not only with delectable dancers but sensational singers. Under the Musical Direction of Ross Scott Rawlings, “nunsemble” members MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Erica Clare, Samantha McEwen Deininger, Rachel Kemp, Santina Maiolatesi, Ashley K. Nicholas, and Elizabeth Rayca sing praises all through numbers like “It’s Good to Be a Nun” and “Bless Our Show.” With each of the aforementioned singers having their own little moments of glory, it is equally astonishing how well their voices blend and create sublime harmonies during those and other numbers, like “Raise Your Voice” and “Take Me to Heaven (Reprise)”. Filled with radiant sound that is rooted in their hearts, the sisters of this ensemble are indeed singing sensations.

Lynne Sigler (center) as Sister Mary Lazarus and the altar boys (L to R Andre Hinds, Darren McDonnell, David Jennings, Jeffrey Shankle) Jeri Tidwell Photography
Lynne Sigler (center) as Sister Mary Lazarus and the altar boys (L to R Andre Hinds, Darren McDonnell, David Jennings, Jeffrey Shankle)

Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours (Jane C. Boyle) and Sister Mary Lazarus (Lynne Sigler) are commanding the good Lord’s praise with their scene stealing abilities. Boyle is definitely tuned into her own world, perhaps even her own universe, and the quirky little outbursts earn her quite a bit of giggles. Sigler, who has a punchy deadpan wit, really comes into her own once she starts singing in “It’s Good to Be a Nun” opposite of Sister Mary Patrick, and again later in “Raise Your Voice” where her breakneck paced patter is second to none. Vying for contender of scene-stealing hilarity is Monsignor O’Hara (Robert Biedermann 125.) Not traditionally thought of as a comic-reliefer, Biedermann isn’t afraid to get funky once the Monsignor has cause to strut his stuff and dance.

(L to R) Moses Bernal as Pablo, Russell Sunday as Joey, Tobias Young as TJ, and DeCarlo Raspberry as Curtis with Hasani Allen (center) as Sweaty EddieJeri Tidwell Photography
(L to R) Moses Bernal as Pablo, Russell Sunday as Joey, Tobias Young as TJ, and DeCarlo Raspberry as Curtis with Hasani Allen (center) as Sweaty Eddie

Three vile henchmen who have all of the thuggish aptitude of Larry, Curly, and Moe are exactly what you get in Pablo (Moses Bernal), TJ (Tobias Young), and Joey (Russell Sunday.) This trio of thick-headed twit-wits bowl the audience over with their shenanigans, particularly when they start cutting across the dance floor during “When I Find My Baby.” Bernal affects an outrageously stereotypical accent for his portrayal and Young has an amusing falsetto for the effeminate character; both men find their 15-seconds of fame during “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Sunday, who serves as the threesome’s ferocious leader, rules the roost during this number, running away with the scene and the audience once he starts to get down (all the way to the floor) with his bad self. Smooth like Luther Vandross when he starts piping into the song, Sunday is an honest comedic scream that carries the audience to the promised land of gut-busting laughs.

Where there are henchmen, there’s a boss and in this case it’s the vile and villainous Curtis Jackson (DeCarlo Raspberry.) With venom like a viper it’s easy to see why Raspberry’s character is the boss. Ramped with rage, Raspberry has frightening facial expressions, especially when it comes to his more frustratingly furious moments. Possessing a voice like Barry White, he momentarily makes the audience forget that “When I Find My Baby” is actually a homicidal snuff song. Bold, deep, and full of sound, both this number and its reprise echo quite exceptionally just how dark the character of Curtis Jackson really is.

While each of the sisters have found their home tucked safe away inside the cloister’s confines, not every sister has found her place in the world. Sister Mary Patrick (Amy Haynes) is bubbling over the top with boisterous jubilation. Haynes delivers moments of sheer angelic delight squealed at the height of her character’s enthusiasm and expressed with vividly animated facial responses that match that unobtainable high level of celestial glee. Bouncing about through numbers like “It’s Good to Be a Nun”, where she establishes the effervescent nature of her character, all the way to “Sister Act (Reprise)”, Haynes is nothing short of a miracle in the role and makes for one stupendous sister.

Teresa Danskey (left) as Sister Mary Robert and Ashley Johnson (left) as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister ActJeri Tidwell Photography
Teresa Danskey (left) as Sister Mary Robert and Ashley Johnson (left) as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act

The same stupendous quality can be attributed to Teresa Danskey in the role of Sister Mary Robert. A meager and timid creature at first, Danskey develops moxie as she finds her spirit and raises her voice— both metaphorically and literally. With a powerful and strikingly soulful blast of volume, emotional connection, and overall astonishing lyrical quality her breakout number “The Life I Never Led” and its reprise are show-stopping sensations that put Danskey’s character on the road to the land of milk and honey. Completely invested in the emotional connection of Sister Mary Robert’s bond with Sister Mary Clarence, Danskey tugs at your heartstrings during the scene preceding her big solo.

Love is in the air, and it isn’t just the love for the big man upstairs. When Sweaty Eddie Souther (Hasani Allen) cuts into the scene there’s a whole new brand of heart palpitations just waiting to be felt. Allen does an exceptional job of balancing the dichotomy of Sweaty Eddie; he juxtaposes the nerdy awkward side of the officer against the internal Rico Suave Casanova character with practiced ease. Unafraid to bust a move and find his groove during “I Could Be That Guy,” Allen ropes the audience along for a sensual boogie kind of night in a routine that showcases not only his physical prowess but his deeply impressive pipes. With a sound worthy of Sunday morning praises, Allen will set the world astir with his liquid lava vocals; he and Sweaty Eddie are a match made in heaven.

Ashley Johnson (left) as Sister Mary Clarence and Lynn Sharpe-Spears (right) as Mother SuperiorJeri Tidwell Photography
Ashley Johnson (left) as Sister Mary Clarence and Lynn Sharpe-Spears (right) as Mother Superior

With all of the 70’s vibes wafting through the performance, one hardly expects the core of the show’s magnetism to be derived from Mother Superior (Lynn Sharp-Spears.) Encrusted in a pious frost thicker than the iceberg that sank Titanic, Sharp-Spears broke God’s mold when she settled into the character of Mother Superior. Exacting in her sarcasm, precise in her biting delivery, Sharp-Spears delivers a firm and resolute rendition of the head nun that would please any pope. In addition to her flawless character work, Sharp-Spears has a masterful command of her heavenly voice. “Here Within These Walls” puts her mellifluous tone into the ether for all to enjoy. Sharing this duet with Deloris Van Cartier (Ashley Johnson), Sharp-Spears establishes the volatile yet hilarious chemistry between her and the leading lady very early on. Consistent and resolute, there is not a moment in the performance where Sharp-Spears wavers from her reverent path; “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” straying down the path of flippancy but handled in such a way that it is nothing except for fantastically funny and exceptionally enjoyable.

Ashley Johnson as Sister Mary Clarence singing "Raise Your Voice" in Sister ActJeri Tidwell Photography
Ashley Johnson as Sister Mary Clarence singing “Raise Your Voice” in Sister Act

Ashley Johnson will get your rafters ringing every time she opens her mouth. Be it her phenomenal vocal ability or her precision delivery when it comes to laugh lines and serious moments, there is no stopping this celestial star on her path to heavenly glory. Pushing her potential to the limit in “Raise Your Voice” she inspires a conflagration that spreads like holy fire all through the “nunsemble” resulting in a show-stopping number that shakes the house down. Bouncing like a proper 70’s vibrating motel room bed when conducting the sisters, Johnson is physically invested in the character. Her dance games is as on point as her powerhouse vocals, which are delivered for each and every number in which she’s featured. Emotionally grounded into the weight of the character for songs like “Sister Act” and “Spread Love Around”, Johnson proves her versatility as a performer and nails the role without question.

Raise your voice! Because Toby’s Dinner Theatre is raising the stakes! They’re raising the game! Hell, they’re raising some good old fashioned Cane with this joyous and jubilant production of Sister Act. The production will sell out so do not wait to book your tickets!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

Sister Act plays through November 13, 2016 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (301) 596-6161 or purchase them online.


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