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Theater review: It's all about those rockin' nuns in UMD's 'Sister Act'

Reese Britts (left), Tolu Ekisola and Cally Stanich star in the UMD theater department's production of "Sister Act." Photo by Brett Groehler, UMD staff photographer

Can I get a "Hallelujah" and a "Glory Be"? The sisters of the Queen of Angels Cathedral are rockin' the house at UMD in the musical "Sister Act," directed by William Payne.

Based on the 1992 film comedy with Whoopi Goldberg, the musical is set in Philadelphia in the 1970s. A down-and-out singer named Deloris Van Cartier (Tolu Ekisola) fancies herself as the Donna Summer disco queen of South Philly.

When she witnesses a murder committed by her boyfriend, Curtis (Nic Reynolds), she is forced into an unlikely witness protection program in the convent at the Queen of Angels.

Deloris takes over their most discordant and ear-splitting nuns' choir and whips the sisters into a soulful group of disco-dancing backup singers who provide a space for her to showcase her talents and theirs.

While Ekisola has the comedic skills and stage presence to create a vivid character, her voice is a bit thin, especially in the early going. The show starts slowly with her two opening numbers lacking enough vocal punch. She does, however, build throughout the evening and finds her musical legs much more in Act II.

The early scenes with Curtis and his motley band of three stooges also don't create enough spark to do more than just get the plot rolling.

It is when the action switches to the convent, and we meet the funny, sweet and talented chorus of nuns, that the show starts building up steam. The jubilant 12-member group is filled with standout singers and wonderful character actresses.

Miranda Neuhaus, as the shy postulant Sister Mary Robert, has one of the evening's most soaring vocal moments in the plaintive "The Life I Never Led."

The other strongest voice in the company is Cally Stanich, as the beleaguered and sarcastic Mother Superior. Her opening number, "Here Within These Walls," is breathtaking, and her Act II "I Haven't Got a Prayer" highlights both her comedic style and her powerhouse voice.

Reese Britts, as the timid cop Eddie and Deloris' love interest, makes the most of his cute solo, "I Could Be That Guy." The ever-reliable character actor, Simon VanVactor-Lee, charms as Monsignor O' Hara, who finds his inner groove and soul brother kinship with the church's new choral stylings.

Because of some clunky, lumbering scene changes, the show's pacing seems labored at times. One shift in the middle of the Mother Superior's opening solo (by a set crew member in backstage black shirt and pants) was particularly intrusive.

While Curtis Phillips' set was serviceable, it lacked what could have been a much more Gothic and grandiose church where much of the action takes place.

The seven-piece band, under the direction of Thomas Jacobsen, was solid throughout and balanced well with the singers.

By show's end, the company with their rousing finale, "Spread the Love Around," and their big energy curtain call, "Raise Your Voice," had the audience clapping and dancing in the aisles.

Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews theater for the News Tribune.

If you go

What: "Sister Act"

Where: UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center

When: April 18-20 and 24-27 at 7:30 p.m.; April 28 at 2 p.m.

Tickets: www.tickets.umn.edu or at (218) 726-8561. Adults, $21; seniors (62+), $16; children/students, $10; UMD staff $16; UMD students $8

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