Reviews

Archive for Reviews

Sunset’s ‘Sister Act’ gets into the habit of laughter

By Marilyn Jozwik

Published Oct. 16, 2017

When it comes to theater, nuns are fun to watch. Virtually every time we see them on stage, they are doing something outrageous and outrageously funny.

In ‘Sister Act” at the Sunset Playhouse the nuns are more fun than a barrel of church chimes as they depart from their usual habits, dancing and singing in 70s style, from disco to hand jive.

Perhaps next to “Mama Mia” this is my favorite musical for sheer joy and enjoyment. When that gaggle of nuns starts swaying their arms and lifting their voices heartily you’d have to be Ebenezer Scrooge not to smile.

And there was a lot of smiling going on at Sunset’s version of the show, set in 1977-78 Philadelphia. The show opens with our protagonist, Deloris Van Cartier (Ashley Levells), performing at a nightclub owned by her gangster boyfriend, Curtis (Nick Zuiker).

Deloris sees Curtis, who has connections to a record producer, as her ticket to stardom, which she craves. But when she catches Curtis in the middle of a murder, she panics and runs to the police station, where she meets a cop and former classmate, Eddie (Ernest Bell). Eddie believes that Curtis and his gang, including nephew T.J. (Greg Malcolm), Joey (James Ramos) and Pablo (Manuel Lupian), are out to kill Deloris and arranges for her to hide out in a convent while the police try to track the killer down.

Mother Superior (Sharon Sprague) reluctantly agrees, but soon finds that Deloris’ lifestyle is hardly a good fit for the convent. Deloris – who is introduced to the nuns as Sister Mary Clarence – takes over musical direction for the lackluster nun choir and turns them into a singing sensation patterned after her nightclub act. Mother Superior is dismayed at the influence Deloris has on the sisters as she sings, “I’ve got celibate nuns shaking their buns.” But when Monsignor O’Hara (Mark Batory) sees the church filled with people and donations needed to maintain the church pouring in, she has no choice but to let Deloris stay, much to the delight of the other sisters who have grown fond of her.

In the meantime, the nun choir under Deloris’s direction has gotten so good, it’s attracted the attention of the pope, who is coming to town to hear the nuns perform. Curtis and his gang recognize Deloris when her nun choir is featured on the TV news, so he and his trio of thugs plot to take her from the convent. But with the close bond Deloris has created, she’s found a new peace and persona in the convent as she sings, “I’ve got my sisters by my side. I’ve got my sisters’ love and pride. And in my sisters’ eyes, I recognize the star I want to be.”

Director Diana Alioto has this cast performing at a high-octane level, but none higher than Levells, whose Deloris delivers attitude in every song and move. She has all the star quality her character possesses. Levells loves the spotlight – as her character does – and vice versa. Every line is pure Deloris, as is every look, such as the look of smugness she wears when the monsignor tells the doubting Mother Superior of Deloris’ value to the convent. She can drip with sarcasm on a line like “Ain’t this my lucky day – I got a man who wants to kill me and a cop with a gun. Goody. Goody.” Or, really ham up a sequence, like the Lord’s Prayer she ad libs to the nuns, her version containing fragments of famous non-religious speeches instead of the usual text.

Sprague’s Mother Superior is the perfect counterpoint to Levell’s Deloris. Sprague has an appropriate no-nonsense attitude in her scenes with Deloris and really shines with pitch perfect vocals on songs like “Here Within These Walls” and a wonderfully nuanced “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” in which she prays for a sign from God to know what to do about Deloris.

One of the most popular tunes of the evening was Bell’s “I Could Be That Guy,” wherein his Eddie character muses about what it would take for him to win Deloris.  Bell displays a range as wide as a Nebraska prairie and a romantic, soulful, Barry White style. Adding to the scene’s appeal is the nifty outfit transformation Eddie undergoes with a little help from several other performers. It is a beautifully delivered piece and well-executed scene.

Another audience pleaser was “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” in which Curtis’ three henchmen, played by Malcolm, Ramos and Lupian, describe in song and dance how they’re going to woo the nuns. It’s a cute bit that the three execute admirably. The trio’s crowd-pleasing antics balanced out some uneven vocals.

But the stars of the show are the nuns. Vocally this ensemble had a nice full sound on opening night, and really excelled in performing Nancy Visintainer-Armstrong’s choreography with precision and energy. It is just a hoot watching a dozen or so nuns do a hand jive!

Allan Menken’s pleasant music and Glen Slater’s clever lyrics give each song bounce and appeal. Mark Mrozek and a handful of musicians produce a hearty sound, much of it reminiscent of the ’70s and “Saturday Night Fever.”

The Act 1 and Act 2 endings were especially joyous celebrations, sending audience members out to the lobby and out into the parking lot with smiles.

If you go:

Who: Sunset Playhouse

What: “Sister Act”

When: Through Nov. 5

Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove

Info/Tickets: sunsetplayhouse.com/262-782-4430

Sunset serves up delicious Italian food for thought – OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS

By Marilyn Jozwik

I was told that there would be laughter and there would be tears during Sunset Playhouse’s presentation of Joe DiPietro’s “Over the River and Through the Woods,” my first viewing of the show.

I didn’t quite get to the tears part – though there were some wonderfully done, emotion-filled scenes – but there was plenty of laughter. In fact, throughout most of the first act, there was a constant array of laughter, ranging from tittering to belly laughs.

The theme of the show is family. Nick (Ben Braun) is the 29-year-old, single grandson of Frank (Scott Kopischke) and Aida (Joan End), as well as Nunzio (Raffaello Frattura) and Emma (Linda Wirth). Nick’s parents have moved to Florida, but Nick still lives in New Jersey and has Sunday dinner with both sets of grandparents every week. Nick is often reminded of the importance of his family. “Tengo familia” his grandparents repeat to him often, impressing upon their grandson his role in the family.

Nick loves his family dearly but is frustrated by their old ways and lack of empathy for his generation. They don’t want to learn how to use the new devices he gives them as gifts, they argue endlessly about minutiae and they fuss over him like mother hens, especially his grandmother Aida, whose first remark when he arrives – or when most anyone arrives, for that matter – is “You look hungry.” She moves in and out of her kitchen, bringing splendid meals and desserts like a short order cook. “That’s their secret – they suck you in with the food,” says Nick.

Food is a big part of the play. And these are some of the most relatable moments. Early on, Aida asks Nick what kind of cheese he wants on his sandwich, “chedda” or “Muensta,” as they say with their New Jersey accents, in a hilarious bit. Next comes the crumb cake that Aida serves as Nick tries to make a big announcement. “This is a one-sentence announcement. You don’t have to cater it,” says Nick. The grandparents make a production  of serving the cake and coffee, chattering about who wants what, how good the cake is, and on and on. Nick is becoming more and more frustrated with their habits.

When Nick finally tells them news they don’t like – which seems like a betrayal of family, to them — the grandparents set in motion a whole series of events to try to undo Nick’s plans. Along the way, Nick learns a lot more about his grandparents and their past that gives him an even deeper appreciation of this incredible gift of family.

DiPietro, the playwright, has a gift for comedy, as he also displays in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” There is lots to laugh at in both these shows, with “I Love You” having perhaps a meatier script.

This cast, under the direction of Brian Zelinski, does a fine job with the comedy and capturing the emotional pitches the show attains.

As the tightly-wound Nick, Braun has all the right qualities. In the first act, he is in a near constant state of annoyance as his grandparents’ whirl around on a merry-go-round of small talk, food presentations and petty arguments. He communicates with his hands, his face, his whole body, conveying his emotions. His is a demanding role and Braun is up to the challenge. In Act II, Nick sees a different side of his grandparents, and we see a different side of Nick. Braun plays the transformation beautifully.

Kopischke and End as Frank and Aida are the more subdued set of grandparents, while Raffaello and Wirth as Nunzio and Emma have only one volume to their conversations – loud.

I have loved Joan End in every play I’ve seen her in, most recently in “The Foreigner.” Here, she plays a sort of Edith Bunker character that knows only one mode – maternal. End has such warmth and sweetness about her character that Aida draws you in. She beams at every compliment about her culinary skills and unabashedly shows the joys of service.

As her husband, Frank, Kopischke seems to always be in the center. His emotional stories of leaving his home in Italy when he was 14 are touching and his slightly out-of-touch and myopic view of the world is endearing.  Kopischke gives Frank an introspective quality, a thoughtful manner. Nunzio, played by Frattura, is just the opposite. He’s boisterous and demonstrative, and says what he thinks when he thinks it. Nunzio’s wife, Emma, played by Wirth, rivals her husband in tone and passion. These two, as are End and Kopischke, are a perfect pairing.

As Caitlin O’Hare, a family friend, Deanna Strasse brings just the right amount of bemusement as she meets Nick’s warm and expressive Italian family. While Nick is visibly angered at his family’s mealtime conversation, Caitlin is charmed. Strasse’s pleased look is a nice contrast to Nick’s look of exasperation. The two handle wonderfully a pivotal scene in which Caitlin helps Nick learn to appreciate just what he has.

The ensemble cast is first-rate, tackling some of the tricky exchanges expertly. When playing Trivial Pursuit, Nunzio has a hard time coming up with a name and the grandparents go off on a rollicking discussion of “the guy with the ears” and “the woman with the hair” without ever coming up with names. It’s hilarious, with Wirth and Frattura verbally dueling as if in a tennis match.

Nick Korneski’s set of Frank and Aida’s living room is warm and inviting, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the big picture above the window. It just seemed an odd place to put it. Marty Wallner’s lighting is spot on, highlighting various characters and scenes to home in on the emotions.

You don’t have to be Italian to appreciate the messages delivered so well here, mainly that family matters. But the need to succeed and to reach our potential is important, too, as long as we don’t lose sight of those who formed us. Those values are articulated with humor and emotion in Sunset’s presentation of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” If nothing else, it will make you want to start a tradition of Sunday family dinners.

If you go

Who: Sunset Playhouse

What: “Over the River and Through the Woods”

Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove

When: Through Sept. 24

Tickets: (262) 782-4430; www.sunsetplayhouse.com