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Review: Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s ‘Sister Act’ at Broward Center hits all the right notes

Mandi Jo John and company in Slow Burn Theatre Co.'s "Sister Act," playing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale through Feb. 18. (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
Larry Marano/Courtesy
Mandi Jo John and company in Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s “Sister Act,” playing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale through Feb. 18. (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
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Based on the wildly successful 1992 film, the Broadway version of “Sister Act” was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. With music by award-winning composer Alan Menken, lyrics by Tony Award-nominee Glenn Slater, a book by Emmy Award winners Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and additional book material by Tony Award-nominee ֱ Carter Beane, “Sister Act” is a crowd-pleaser that loosely follows the story of the film, which served as a vehicle to showcase the talents of comedian Whoopi Goldberg.

The Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s production, directed by Patrick Fitzwater, rises above the typical formulaic, over-the-top musical comedy presentation with nuanced direction, stellar acting and rousing music that lifts even the gloomiest disposition.

“Sister Act” begins with struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier crooning her heart out in an audition for her gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson, who owns a Philadelphia nightclub. But the very-married mobster dismisses her ambition to perform in his establishment. After witnessing her beau kill an informant, a terrified Deloris seeks protection from law enforcement and finds herself sequestered in a convent, of all places.

Deloris begrudgingly agrees to temporarily disguise herself as a nun, but before long she finds true validation with the sisters as she breathes new life into the lackluster choir of the financially destitute church. The sisters are ecstatic as they come to discover their individual talents and abilities along the way. However, not everyone is thrilled with the upbeat and modernized take on choir performances. An aghast Mother Superior frets that the sanctity of her convent has been tainted, but when the choir begins to achieve real acclaim — raising money that will save the struggling parish — even the monsignor is impressed, much to Mother Superior’s chagrin.

When Deloris becomes a media darling, the exposure threatens to reveal her identity and location, and it isn’t long before her murderous ex learns her whereabouts and sends his henchmen to eliminate the threat. It all leads to a moment of self-awareness for Deloris, as she realizes the value of her friendships with the sisters and discovers a purpose that delivers joy and meaning far beyond material fame and fortune.

David L. Murray Jr. plays officer Eddie Souther (Sweaty Eddie), who professes his love for the lead character in "Sister Act." (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
Larry Marano/Courtesy
David L. Murray Jr. plays officer Eddie Souther (Sweaty Eddie), who professes his love for the lead character in “Sister Act.” (Larry Marano/Courtesy)

Mandi Jo John as Deloris is a dream, with her gorgeous voice, city-slick swagger and nuanced acting. John commands the stage with dulcet tones that elicit goosebumps when she professes her sincere love for her sisters.

Paulette Oliva as Mother Superior shines as she alternates between earnest prayers for guidance from above and impeccably timed deadpan insults aimed at her wayward guest. Oliva is an expert song stylist, and her solos are beautifully interpreted odes to her faith and frustration.

Mikayla Cohen, as Sister Mary Robert, delivers the production’s most powerful and inspiring moment, when her paralyzingly timid character finally lets loose and belts out her desire to find her true calling in “The Life I Never Led.” During a recent performance, a wildly enthusiastic audience leapt to their feet at the end of Cohen’s solo, clapping furiously and cheering her on.

While his voice is commanding and technically arresting, David L. Murray Jr. as officer Eddie Souther (Sweaty Eddie) struggles to achieve the necessary romantic chemistry that defines his character’s relationship with Deloris. Therefore, when Eddie professes his love to her, it feels surprising and a bit hollow.

Chaz Rose as gangster Curtis sings with a smooth-as-silk baritone that channels Barry White while he seduces the audience with his sexy Temptations moves. His comical goons (played by Darius J. Manuel, Gianfranco Imbert and Ryan Crout) stumble over one another as they back up their boss. The hilarious choreography has the three dramatizing various ways in which Curtis dreams of murdering his former mistress. (All “violence” in the play is made comical with slapstick choreography that reinforces the family-friendly nature of this production.)

The production sizzles with beautiful, period-appropriate costumes including pink sequined boots, feathery bell-bottom pants and sky-high platform shoes. Curtis’ goons are a riot of colors and patterns in their mismatched suits and ties. As the choir’s public acclaim rises, so does the amount of sparkle and sass in their tunics, headpieces and choreography.

Mandi Jo John, left, as struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier and Mikayla Cohen as Sister Mary Robert in "Sister Act." (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
Larry Marano/Courtesy
Mandi Jo John, left, as struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier and Mikayla Cohen as Sister Mary Robert in “Sister Act.” (Larry Marano/Courtesy)

Kudos to musical director Wilkie Ferguson for balanced harmonies, excellent diction in group numbers, and heart-rending dynamics that bring the audience to tears at moments such as Deloris’ affecting ode to self-discovery.

The director, Fitzwater, expertly balances outrageous physical comedy with tender, earnest moments that keep the audience emotionally engaged. Choreography is evocative of the 1970s and comically salacious when the nuns grow increasingly enthusiastic as they describe their passion for the Lord.

Scenic transitions are made smooth with the use of wagons, projections and backdrops swiftly lowered into place. While properties are realistic and convincing for the most part, the illusion is broken when mobster Curtis brandishes a “pistol” featuring a red plug at the end of the barrel. This is indicative of a prop gun, and this reviewer couldn’t help but wonder why the red wasn’t masked with black tape or paint.

Nevertheless, this poignant production goes far beyond simple entertainment, as it moves the audience with its enthusiastic cadre of endearing characters and well-developed relationships. Will you have a great time watching this amusing romp? Yes.

But you will also walk away feeling a wistful tugging in your heart for genuine, caring relationships that transcend the material world and celebrate true friendship.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Sister Act,” presented by Slow Burn Theatre Co.

WHEN: Through Sunday, Feb. 18

WHERE: Amaturo Theater, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale

COST: Tickets start at $54

INFORMATION: 954-462-0222, or

Mariah Reed is an Equity actress, produced playwright and tenured theater professor. A version of this review ran in .

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