Review: ‘Sister Act’ at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia

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Nuns are more fun in the round. That’s a catechism we learned at Toby’s Dinner Theatre via Nunsense and other shows so many times it became an article of faith.

Ashley Johnson (Deloris Van Cartier). Photo by

Ashley Johnson (Deloris Van Cartier). Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

Now Toby’s is up to its wimples in old habits with Sister Act, and it is guaranteed to turn every last “doubting Thomas” out there into a true believer.

This 2011 London and Broadway hit musical was itself a convert from a sassy 1992 movie comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg. While the new work is crammed to the steeple with smart moves, the smartest of all may have been the decision by book writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner to relocate the story to 1978 Philadelphia.

The late-1970s was the disco era, after all, which carried its own touch of divine grace. Imagine how many little points of light can shine off all those mirrored-ball chandeliers.

That period was also gave us “the Philly sound.” Long ago composer Alan Menken proved his chops for tongue-in-cheek pop-rock with Little Shop of Horrors. Here he tunes his piano to stylized evocations of everyone from Patti Labelle and Billy Paul to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. (The lyrics by Glenn Slater are more than adequate, even if they never reach the heavenly heights of the late Howard Ashman.)

At Toby’s this time around, the direction is completely in the hands of the multi-talented Lawrence B. (Larry) Munsey, fresh from playing Edna in Hairspray. That this show has a similar vibe to it of contagious cheer and optimism is just more good news. Munsey is able to build on all that happy social equality with inspired casting that keeps the beat going.

Ashley Johnson returns to Toby’s theater-in-the-round as Deloris Van Cartier, a would-be disco diva who witnesses a gangland murder and ends up seeking shelter among the pious sisters of a nearby convent.

Johnson is a powerhouse actress with sensuous moves and golden blues-dipped vocal cords. Her Deloris may come on as plain brassy and too full of herself at first as the glitzy nightclub singer in “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby,” but don’t bet against her. You will come to care greatly for this disco butterfly as she spreads her wings to meet the challenge of those singing nuns.

Johnson’s Deloris, it turns out, has cultivated a warm heart for misfits ever since grade school when she trampled on the affections of people like “Sweaty” Eddie. Lo and behold, it’s that same little Eddie who is now all grown up and a member of the “thin blue line” in charge of her protection.

Ashley Johnson and Hasani Allen. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

Ashley Johnson (Deloris Van Cartier) and Hasani Allen (‘Sweaty’ Eddie). Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

The best new discovery in this production is Hasani Allen as Eddie. Allen just ended a memorable run as charismatic but disturbed JD in Heathers at Red Branch Theatre Company. Here he gets a chance to show his wackier side as a cop whose stiff and accident-prone reality is frequently at odds with his soul-crooner-ladies’-man inner self. Dare we dub him “Dr. Strangelove”?

Allen gives delightful slapstick expression to both sides of “Sweaty” Eddie in his back-alley fantasy solo “I Could Be That Guy.” He makes you wish the whole show were more about his and Deloris’ rocky romance than about any rocking choir.

Not that anyone would want any less of all the nonsense with the nuns.

Lynn Sharp-Spears proves she is the Mother Superior with a voice to match in “Here Within These Walls,” then takes the light side with “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”

 Ashley Johnson (Denise Van Cartier). Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

Ashley Johnson (Deloris Van Cartier) and Lynn Sharp-Spears (Mother Superior). Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

The choir girls acquire their own individual personalities in the winning portrayals by Teresa Danskey, Lynne Sigler, Jane C. Boyle and especially Amy Haynes. Robert Biedermann gets lots of laughs all evening as the pre-show warm-up and later shows up on stage as a quirky Monsignor O’Hara.

DeCarlo Raspberry proves another outstanding singer as the play’s comical heavy, Curtis, nearly stopping the show with his smooth blues-rich solo on “When I Find My Baby.”

Tobias Young as sidekick TJ also wows the audience with “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Fellow thugs Russell Sunday and Moses Bernal join him in that big applause-getter, more than galvanizing the attention of the stage-side table set.

A large supporting ensemble of regulars and newcomers also lifts the show a peg or so. Jeffrey Shankle, Samantha McEwan Deininger, Ashley K. Nicholas, Andre Hinds, Coby Kay Callahan, Mary Kate Brouillet, and a dozen more are the super troopers who always help distinguish a Toby’s show.

The live orchestra under the direction of Ross Scott Rawlings is fully engaged by this score in a driving succession of tempos and changing colors. It not only keeps all the singers striving for their best, it puts wings beneath the feet of the dancers.

The cast of 'Sister Act' performs 'Take Me to Heaven.' Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

The cast of ‘Sister Act’ performs ‘Take Me to Heaven.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

The choreography by Mark Minnick references all those wonderful steps and pelvic struts of the Saturday Night Fever era. It finds ways to separate the nuns from the gangland thugs while keeping them all in the same play. In short, it’s another top-notch achievement by Toby Orenstein’s new top lieutenant.

On the technical side, the skills of Set and Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins underscores the period while constantly renewing visual interest. Sound Designer Mark Smedley contributes some of the cleanest amplification of ensemble singing I’ve ever heard in this often-challenging environment. And the array of dazzling sequined costumes provided by Lawrence Munsey and Mary Quinn turn this into a Project Runway for the theater savvy.

After Howard County’s summer of sweltering temperatures and flash floods, Sister Act at Toby’s comes as a tall glass of Holy Water. But you don’t have to accept that on faith: Reserve a table before they’re all gone. These nuns are five-star fun!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

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Sister Act — The Broadway Musical plays through November 13, 2016 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For reservations, call (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS, or purchase them online.

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