Sister Act at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre

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The first rule of singing is to get those rafters ringing! And you can bet all the dollars in the collection plate that if Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre had rafters they would surely be ringing with all the wonderful singing that’s coming out of their current production of Sister Act. They’d raise the roof— if they had one— with the joyous noise these sensational sisters are making, under the fine Direction of Clare Shaffer and Musical Direction of Paige Rammelkamp. With contagious jubilation, these sisters are beckoning people in straight from the boats in the harbor to hear the praises of one phenomenal Sister Act; you won’t be disappointed that you dropped in for a hymn or two!

The Nuns of Sister Act at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre
The Nuns of Sister Act at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre Alison Harbaugh for Sugar Farm Productions

A simple set shows the dichotomy between the secular world and the religious in this case. Set Designer April Joy Vester puts up very resourceful double-sided spinning set pieces; on one side the pious painted stained glass colors of a reverend and holy cloister. On the other side? Anything you need them to be from the outside world; Vester’s rotating locations allow for fluid ease of scenic transitions while maximizing usage of the broad outdoor space. Augmenting this clever design work, Lighting Designer Kaitlyn M. Peacock puts her illumination tactics to good use with great consistency throughout the show. Often there’s a moment that comes into sharp focus because of Peacock’s precision use of spotlight. The up-tempo celebratory scenes also involve a fair bit of disco-party lighting, which is quite appropriate considering the show— unlike its silver-screen counterpart— is set in the 70’s.

One would think there wouldn’t be much room for praise in the wardrobe department in a show that focuses primarily on nuns. But Costume Designer Lin Whetzel puts hints of flare here and there throughout, largely on Delores’ pre-nun outfits. There are sparkles and spangles where necessary to accentuate her lounge singer lifestyle. Whetzel also deserves a nod of praise for the perfect functionality of the dual-layered breakaway outfit used on Sweaty Eddie. The costume piece of the show— which can’t really be mentioned so as not to spoil the surprise— comes from Reverend Mother herself (Miss Debbie Mobley)— and let’s just say that it’s enlightening!

Greg Jones Ellis (center) as Monsignor O'Hara and the nuns of Sister Act
Greg Jones Ellis (center) as Monsignor O’Hara and the nuns of Sister Act Alison Harbaugh for Sugar Farm Productions

Director Clare Shafer pushes the joy like she pushes the tempo: hard and fast. Musical Director Paige Rammelkamp performs a fine balancing act when it comes to giving the sisters that uniquely off-pitch and dreadfully unholy sound before the advent of Sister Mary Clarence and her ascension to the position of choir director. Keeping the nun-ensemble sounding like actual singers when the characters burst into “musical” songs versus when the nuns are singing in the choir in whichever key they can find is quite a task but it’s one that Rammelkamp rises to with great aplomb. All together the production generates a groove; there is a palpable pulse of shiny happiness and smooth sailing all across the board and that can be well attributed to Shafer and Rammelkamp.

Ramping up those joyous moments with her enthusiastic dance movements, Choreographer Rikki Lacewell does her thing and lets loose a torrent of energy and elation all throughout the musical. From the knee-popping swoop steps featured as back-up moves performed by Curtis’ gang during “When I Find My Baby” to the true 70’s style moves that get the nuns hopping toward the end of “Take Me to Heaven” as the Act One finale, and everything that’s featured in “Sunday Morning Fever”, Lacewell just brings a blessing of movement down on the house of Summer Garden Theatre and hail praise be to her for doing so.

The ensemble is full of voices that are vivacious and personalities that pop, like Joey (Jeff Hawkins) and Pablo (Daniel Santiago) and TJ (Kyle Eshom), with the latter really needing to be in a special personality-popping category all his own. This trio of goofy guys put an extra kick into “When I Find My Baby.” And when Hawkins tries to run away with “Lady in the Long Black Dress”, both Eshom and Santiago are there to back him up with bubbling bursts of hilarity. While this trio’s sole purpose is comedic relief, their voices are more than sound and do both numbers a great deal of support, particularly when it comes to the backup harmonies of Curtis’ lyrically dissonant murder ballad.

Theodore Sapp (center) as Curtis
Theodore Sapp (center) as Curtis Alison Harbaugh for Sugar Farm Productions

Speaking of the vile, revolting, and utterly ruthless Curtis (Theodore Sapp), there is something unspeakably spine-chilling about the fervor he possesses, particularly once he gets his mind set on keeping Deloris quiet. Sapp really channels the nastiness of a mafia style character whose biggest concern is protecting his own shady and seedy dealings directly into the character’s voice and physicality. There is something remarkably sinister, yet hysterical, about the way he glides over the lyrics to “When I Find My Baby.” The severity with which he plays this villainous knave of a character is quite intense, which is a brilliant foil to the lackluster hero, Sweaty Eddie (Josh Mooney.)

Josh Mooney as Sweaty Eddie
Josh Mooney as Sweaty Eddie Alison Harbaugh for Sugar Farm Productions

Filled with awkward nerves but a beautiful voice, Mooney gives the Sweaty Eddie character a good shakedown. Mooney gets two opportunities to vocally shine in the production, early on during “I Could Be That Guy”, which is a rather downtrodden (and again lyrically dissonant) song that gives the audience a few good laughs, albeit at his expense. Though Mooney readily finds his blue-eyed soul for this number and slathers it in an earnest charm, which makes his character quite agreeable and easy to like. Vocally popping out during “Fabulous, Baby (Reprise)”, Mooney against astounds the audience with his singing capabilities. The moments he shares with Deloris showcase a steady character arc, which is ultimately rewarding for everyone watching.

The sister are most definitely raising their voice all throughout the production! Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours (Stephanie Bernholz) may not be the brightest candle in the sanctuary but her comedic timing is sharp! Sister Mary Lazarus (Traci Denhardt) gives her a solid run for her money when it comes to landing those quips and zingers. Denhardt is a hoot, particularly when she starts to patter her way through the allegro-charged section of “Take Me to Heaven” at the end of the first act. Denhardt has a snappy and acerbic wit with which she envelops the character, making her exchanges with both Deloris and Mother Superior quite delectable.

All but bursting out of her habit with indescribably perpetual bliss is Sister Mary Patrick (Kylie Airin Sjolie.) A bright ray of blistering sunshine, Sjolie puts some humor under her habit and really lets loose with the jovial character. With a high-belting top soprano range that is out of this world, she goes to town every chance she gets, including her solos during “How I Got the Calling” and “Take Me to Heaven.” Sjolie gives the character lots to belt about during “Sunday Morning Fever” as well. But there is a versatility to Sjolie’s performance, just after “Bless Our Show”— wherein plot spoilers are revealed— there is a moment where Sjolie’s face simply falls. And watching her bubble of naïve glee shatter is really heartbreaking. Expressive of both face and voice, Sjolie is the perfect fit for the habit of Sister Mary Patrick.

Rachel Perry as Sister Mary Robert
Rachel Perry as Sister Mary Robert Alison Harbaugh for Sugar Farm Productions

Meek, meager, and the exact opposite of Sister Mary Patrick is the sweet postulant, Sister Mary Robert (Rachel Perry.) Completely innocent of the secular world and essentially afraid of her own shadow, Perry takes the character on a stunning transformative journey. Whispering her way through the first few numbers there is a phenomenal sound that explodes from within her when her character is finally coaxed into full voice and brazen belt during “Take Me to Heaven” at the end of the first act. But the true show-stopping number for Perry is “The Live I Never Led”, which is loaded with raw emotions, intense feelings, and unstoppable sound. Perry pushes these sentiments in earnest into both this number and its reprise, earning her a well-deserved ovation during the curtain call.

Kanysha Williams as Deloris Van Cartier
Kanysha Williams as Deloris Van Cartier Alison Harbaugh for Sugar Farm Productions

She’s glam, she’s mouthy, she’s everything that a nun should pray she never sees, but Deloris Van Cartier (Kanysha Williams) finds herself on a path to redemption from her wicked ways, even if it isn’t her choice at first. Williams has a powerful voice and a seriously sassy attitude, which well serves the character of Deloris. Once she dons the habit and the persona of Sister Mary Clarence, there is no stopping her vocal prowess, particularly as she bounces along all through “Take Me to Heaven.” This is a very different rendition of that number than the one she performs at the top of the show, though both songs are a great vehicle for her vocal strength. Emotional tethers ground Williams in “Sister Act” and its reprise, both of which are striking moments to behold.

Debbie Mobley as Mother Superior
Debbie Mobley as Mother Superior Alison Harbaugh for Sugar Farm Productions

One nun to rule them all; Mother Superior (Debbie Mobley) becomes the holy center of attention from the moment her Brooklyn-steeped voice arrives to the stage with the good Monsignor O’Hara (played by the uncanny Greg Jones Ellis.) Mobley is nothing short of marvelous and miraculous in the role. Balancing the severity of the character’s composition against the beauty of some of the songs she sings, Mobley achieves a stellar creation in Mother Superior. Mobley’s facial reactions deserver a write-up all their own; when Deloris takes to praying over their first meal together if her face could break free from the confines of her habit, it would launch a full-scale attack all over the imposter nun attempting to lead them in prayer. The utter shock that seizes her features during “Take Me To Heaven” is so perfectly executed that you might bust a rosary with your laughter. In addition to the wild and animated facial expressions Mobley provides for Mother Superior, her vocal approach to the character is sublime. “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” is humorous and yet sincere. Mobley succeeds gracefully in traversing the complex range in which Mother Superior’s songs are penned and does so with exceptional pitch. Truly superior, Debbie Mobley is the head sister of this Sister Act.

So get you to heaven, and by heaven, we mean Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre to see this wonderful and spirited production, which is full of heart and light, Sister Act.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

Sister Act plays through June 17, 2017 at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre— 143 Compromise Street in Historic Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 268-9212 or purchase them online.

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