Stage Review: Playhouse’s ‘Sister Act’ Rises Above Weaknesses

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Youngstown Playhouse opened its 98th Season with the musical “Sister Act” on Friday night at Playhouse Lane. The show is based on the hit 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Music for this version was written by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater and the book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane.

Sister Act tells the story of singer Deloris Van Cartier who witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit a murder. She flees to the police who promptly put her in protective custody in a nearby convent. The story plays out as Deloris wreaks havoc at the convent all the while winning over the staid nuns to a more adventurous lifestyle.

Disappointment set in right from the start as the Playhouse decided, once again, to forego a live band and go with canned music. It is unfortunate that live theater seems to be disappearing in favor of partial live theater. But upon some research, it seems that this is becoming a trend industrywide rather than a bad habit, no pun intended. Still, I found it difficult to get on track with the production the rest of the way.

The show, directed by Emma Wason, does have some fine talent in it. Starring as Deloris is Nikita Jones who more than handles the vocal demands of the role. She has spirit and stage presence and, for the most part, energy. She is at ease in the demanding role and effortlessly belts out song after song.

But the energy of the whole cast was challenged by numerous technical problems throughout Act I, mainly with the light-board dropping out at least a half dozen times leaving the stage in total darkness in the middle of scenes.

Kudos to spot operators who tried to cover everybody during those times.

Act I is not the strongest part of Sister Act. With a few exceptions there is little musically to get excited about. “Here Within These Walls,” which introduces the Mother Superior, is one of those exceptions. The role is very well done by Amy Burd who gets better and better with each appearance. Both she and Jones are two of the better characters in the early going.

It’s Good to Be a Nun, featuring all of the sisters in the convent, is a real bright spot in the act and is very reminiscent of a similar number in “Nunsense.” It is a fun upbeat number. The act finishes up on a high note with “Raise Your Voice” when Deloris is teaching the nuns to sing on key. The actresses involved are all strong vocally and know how to belt out a tune. So, trying to sound like you can’t sing, when you can, is no easy task. They all played the number well with a good payoff at the end.

Once the action shifted to the convent, the show ticks up a bit due to the nuns and their interaction with Deloris. Turning in good performances as nuns were Elizabeth Huff, Jenny Long, Caitlin Overton, Keri Jennings, Haggy Hagerman (good to see her on stage again), Allyson Wenger, Breanne Reda, Madison Knepper, Connie Nail-Benner, and Patti Shears.

Things picked up considerably in Act II and the cast was able to overcome the jukebox and crank out some good solid numbers. Tech problems also subsided.

Terry Shears turns in a hilarious performance as Monsignor O’Hara. Staid and proper in Act I, Shears lets loose in Act II, getting caught up in the excitement that Deloris creates, complete with outlandish garb. Amy Burd hits a high mark again in Act II with her solo, “Haven’t Got a Prayer.” But the show stopper of the act, and possibly the entire show, goes to Elizabeth Huff as Sister Mary Robert with her solo “The Life I Never Led.” She may be small in stature but her voice rings out all the way to Glenwood Avenue.

Set design by Tom Hitmar serves the purpose and isn’t overly done. Lighting design was provided by Ellen Licitra and choreography by Emelia Sherin. Connie Cassidy deserves high marks for costume design both in quality and quantity.

Sister Act runs for one more weekend through Oct. 2. Be sure to bring your own list of musical numbers and scene breakdowns (scratch around online to locate) as those continue to be eliminated from the program. “Sister Act” will continue Sept. 24, 30, Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25, Oct. 2 at 2:30 p.m.

Pictured: Nikita Jones, left, in a scene from The Youngstown Playhouse’s production of “Sister Act. Jones plays singer Deloris Van Cartier, who is hiding from gangsters at a convent.

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