Review: Dancing Nuns, Singing Bandits at Rhinoceros Theatre’s “Sister Act”

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Left to right: Anna Smith as Mary Patrick, Dee Wagner as Mary Lazarus, Branden Noel Thomas* and Paul Lopez as Mary Theresa in ’Sister Act,’ directed by AeJay Mitchell. A Theatre Rhinoceros Production at the Gateway Theatre. Photo by David Wilson.

The setting is a quaint old church in San Francisco about to close if attendance doesn’t increase.

As Mother Superior struggles with these impending woes, in walks Detective Eddie (Jarrett Holley) with Deloris Van Cartier (Branden Noel Thomas) as if on cue. Deloris needs witness protection and where better than a church?

Resistance is the operative word here, yet the two women: Mother Superior and Deloris are stuck.

It takes a minute—read the entire show — for those unfamiliar with Whoopi Goldberg’s “Sister Act,” the film (1992) for Deloris and Mother Superior to find their union truly made in heaven.

However, in this Theatre Rhinoceros production, the book by Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane’s filled out by Alan Menken’s music, Glenn Slater’s lyrics, with Aejay Mitchell’s creative and innovative direction and choreography, and Tammy Hall’s musical direction is an opportunity to look at the themes in a new way.

What is racial and gender inclusion? How does it look on stage embodied by this awesome cast?

Theatre Rhinoceros’s production boldly explores these ideas.

Branden Noel Thomas as the talented, beautiful rambunctious diva, “Deloris” rivals Whoopi Goldberg’s original character. Thomas’s Deloris is a plus-sized sweetie who has esteem issues.

The Oakland School for the Arts alumnus crafts a coy, sometimes innocent Deloris who gradually learns to trust and love herself and choose wisely the people she calls sister or friend.

Thomas’s Deloris hits notes only NASA space craft have touched prior to this show.

Swinging and shaking all the spots that make quiet money fall from hands into collection plates, it is not surprising when the Pope asks for an audience with this choir that is making headlines in national and local news.

She’s hiding out, right? Hum. Not for long. Curtis Shank (portrayed by a wonderful Crystal Liu) finds his lover and sends his boys into the church to get her. J

oey (Joyce Domanico-Huh), Erney (Paul Loper), T.J.’s (John Charles Quimpo) performance of “Lady in the Long Black Dress” is a show stopper, as is Curtis’s “When I Find My Baby.” My favorite song is “Take Me to Heaven” and “Spread the Love Around”—it’s all love.

From the first time Deloris sings “Heaven” for Curtis to the next time she sings it for the church, the song changes.  Deloris’s journey is juxtaposed to that of a Mother Superior (actor Kim K. Larsen) who sings of “Walls,” and confesses she “[Hasn’t] Got a Prayer.”

Apathy and disbelief shift powerfully as these two women embrace each other—Success is really in the collective “Sister Act,” the show’s thesis and also a song.

As choir director, Deloris points out to each of her sisters their gifts which were not acknowledged in a tradition where homogeneity is extolled.

Deloris’s words become her new script, her new life. Sister Act is a sweet love story that will have you discreetly wiping away tears during the encore.

I couldn’t imagine such a church in Oakland, where the Black Catholic community has a strong presence given the visionary leadership of Father Jay Matthews (Oct. 25, 1948-Mar. 30, 2019) the first African American priest to be ordained in Northern California.

Father Jay “played a key role in the emergence of the Black Catholic movement in the Diocese of Oakland.

Theatre Rhinoceros, the longest running LGBTQ theatre anywhere, has a winner on its hands with Sister Act, the Musical, which closes this weekend Sat., June 1, shows at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco Visit www.TheRhino.org or 1-800-838-3006.

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