“Sister Act” is a flashy, dazzling show

Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Deloris Van Cartier wearing a purple outfit with backup dancers behind her
Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Deloris Van Cartier and the cast of Sister Act at Paper Mill Playhouse photo by Jeremy Daniel

Deloris Van Cartier sees her manager/boyfriend kill a police informant

Jarran Muse as Lt. Eddie Souther & Nicole Vanessa Ortiz standing at a desk in the police station
Jarran Muse as Lt. Eddie Souther & Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Deloris Van Carier in Sister Act at Paper Mill Playhouse photo by Jeremy Daniel

Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn ends its season with the Broadway hit musical Sister Act, based on the movie of the same name. While this version of the show is a sparkly sequined treat for the eyes, other aspects of the show are lacking. The result is a nice if mediocre event, but one that Paper Mill’s usual audiences will probably find a rousing entertainment.

The plot is relatively simple. Would-be lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Nicole Vanessa Ortiz) sees her manager/boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (Akron Watson), kill a police informant. A childhood friend, police lieutenant “Sweaty Eddie” Souther (Jarran Muse), hides Deloris in the one place Curtis would be unlikely to look:  a convent run by a disapproving Mother Superior (Jennifer Allen). Deloris, now “Sister Mary Clarence,” takes over the direction of the convent’s choir, bringing a much-needed infusion of cash but also media exposure leading her and the nuns into danger.

Led by Ortiz, Muse, and Allen, the cast provided several fine and sometimes funny performances and displayed outstanding vocal abilities. Broad comic relief came from Kara Mikula as Sister Mary Patrick; Belinda Allyn as postulant Sister Mary Robert; and Paper Mill favorite John Treacy Egan as Monsignor O’Brien, who all fall under the spell of show business. Ryan Gregory Thurman, Todd A. Horman, and Anthony Alfaro provide laughs as Curtis’ three bumbling hitmen. Diane J. Findlay’s Sister Mary Lazarus, an older nun, and Alaina Mills’ Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours, a vision-receiving nun, also provide some comic moments.

While the cast tries its best, they are up against the less-than-hilarious book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) and the often predictable lyrics of Glenn Slater. They are also up against the pedestrian direction of Steven Beckler, trying to recreate the original direction of Jerry Zaks. Beckler seems to have flattened out whatever liveliness he could find, resulting in performances that are often more rote than emotionally informed. This especially hurt Watson’s portrayal of Curtis Jackson, who comes across as less of a creepy, amoral menace than a cheap thug in a fancy suit.

At the performance I saw, the cast was also up against some spotty sound work during the first act, which was surprising this early in the run. It seemed like the sound technician was asleep at the board, with some lines and singing going unmiked before popping back into the correct volume. For any show, much less a musical like Sister Act, this proves a detriment for the audience to understand what follows.

Jennifer Allen as Mother Superior and Nicole Vanessa Ortiz talking to each other
Jennifer Allen as Mother Superior and Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act at Paper Mill Playhouse photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The cast was better served by their songs, with music created by award-winning stage and film composer Alan Menkin. While the score has no big hits, there are some strong numbers: “When I Find My Baby,” unfolding Curtis’ plans for Deloris; “I Could Be That Guy,” a romantic fantasy for Eddie; “Haven’t Got a Prayer” and “Here Within These Walls” for the Mother Superior; “The Life I Never Led,” a song of yearning for Sister Mary Robert; and the title number, Deloris’ song of self-realization and appreciation for what the nuns have taught her. The orchestra, led by conductor/keyboardist Christopher Babbage, added to whatever excitement the show generated, bolstering numbers both serious and comic.

While the audience at the performance I attended was wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the show, I wish I could have liked Sister Act more. As it is, though, most audiences will find it an entertaining way to spend an evening in the theater.

Sister Act is produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through June 26th. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit papermill.org or call (973) 376-4343. The Playhouse requires that masks be worn while inside the building.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.