With strong ensemble, a heavenly ‘Sister Act’ at Little Theatre of Alexandria

The feel-good story is chock full of humor and silliness with a killer soundtrack.

Sister Act, a musical based on the 1992 film with Whoopi Goldberg, is currently showing at The Little Theatre of Alexandria (LTA) through February 4. For those unfamiliar, the story follows the singing hopeful, Deloris Van Cartier, who unfortunately witnesses a murder by her gangster boyfriend, and goes into hiding at a convent until she can testify against him in court. But Deloris and the Mother Superior go together like oil and holy water, so a deluge of head-butting, misunderstandings, and other shenanary commences.

With original music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, the score moves from disco, to Gospel, to Motown, and back again. The book is by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane.

Deloris and her backup dancers audition. Tina (Jenni Philp), Deloris (Ashley Williams, and Michelle (Odette Guiterrez del Arroyo) in ‘Sister Act.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

Mike Baker Jr. directs this lighthearted musical, with music direction by Colin Taylor. Julie Fischer’s clever set design uses large rotating pillars, framing a screen that has various backgrounds projected on it. The pillars are multisided to represent the brick outside on the street, the holy decor of the convent, or simply inside a building. Together with lighting designers Ken and Patti Crowley, Baker has created a space that can change location with minimal physical set requirements. It also allows some hilarious chase sequences that are prerecorded and projected to the screen — an amusing alternative to watching the actors run back and forth on the stage.

Ashley Williams plays the sassy and confident Deloris Van Cartier. Williams is perfectly suited for the larger-than-life personality of Deloris, with a powerhouse voice to match. Williams starts out with her backup singers, Michelle (Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo) and Tina (Jenni Philip), singing “Take Me to Heaven,” a disco-grooving song that immediately sets a fast-paced, high-energy tone for the show.

Lt. Eddie, aka “Sweaty Eddie,” is played by the shy, handsome Alonzo Cook. Cook is a tall, muscular man, and his goofy clumsiness and bashful demeanor are a delightful juxtaposition to watch. Cook and Williams have a bright energy and clearly have fun as Eddie gushes on Deloris, who eats up his praise and teases him relentlessly, in a loving, friendly way.

Christine Maxted plays the hardened yet sarcastic Mother Superior, with a gorgeous soprano voice. Maxted conveys well the struggle of morals that Mother Superior constantly battles. Mother Superior and the nuns sing the beautiful “Here Within These Walls” as she laments about Deloris, steeped in the sin of the outside world, coming into their safe place of worship. But this slower-paced and impassioned song also serves as a stark contrast to the flashy, jiving numbers before it, a theme that slowly evolves as the nuns learn to sing more contemporary numbers, with the styles ultimately blending into Gospel.

Deloris inspires the nuns to raise their voices. Nun ensemble and Deloris (Ashley Williams in ‘Sister Act.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

The other nuns of the convent — played by Allison Meyer (Sister Mary Robert), Gina Tune (Sister Mary Patrick), Jennifer Reynolds (Sister Mary Lazarus), Margaret McGarry (Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours), and Jennifer Levy (Sister Mary Theresa) — are loving and accepting of their new Sister Mary Clarence (Deloris’ new alias). They immediately welcome her and buy the lie that she comes from a more progressive convent, which seems to explain her odd, un-nunly behavior.

Gangster-murdering boyfriend Curtis is played by Paul Caffrey.  The gruff and unkempt Caffrey — along with his goons Joey (Evan Zimmerman), Paola (Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo), and TJ (Luke Martin) — plays up the cheesy stereotypes and machismo of the not-so-intelligent criminals. Curtis leads the darkly funny “When I Find My Baby” that initially sounds like it could be a love song, until the lyrics turn to

And when I find that girl,
I’m gonna kill that girl!
I’m gonna wham! Bam! Blam!
And drill that girl!
Won’t rest until that girl
Is safe and sound six feet below — no!

The audience knows that Curtis is the villain, but his sudden change in lyrics and (hand gestures) gathers howls from the crowd.

Joey, Paola, and TJ  have their own, equally hilarious song about the “Lady in the Long Black Dress” in the second act. They plan how they would trick the nuns and find Deloris  with smooth lines like: “Hey, lady in the long black dress, Let’s sneak away and go transgress” and “Come on, say hiya. To your love Messiah” — top-notch romantic stuff that they thrust and strut to with their over-inflated egos.

The good-spirited and lively Monsignor O’Hara (Peter Fannon) has several comedic moments of his own, as his joy and excitement over his choir’s new sound grows and causes him to dance uncharacteristically and change up his sermon delivery to more upbeat, almost DJ-announcer vibes.

Williams’ Deloris constantly toes the line of self-preservation and her need to be star of the show, which ultimately blows her cover. But the journey Deloris goes on, as she grows to love her Sisters and evolve into a more humble version of her fabulous self, is a lovely thing to see.

I must add a special shoutout to Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo, who played multiple roles in the show, also serves as dance captain, and stood out, in the best way possible. Her thuggish Paola is a hoot.

Sister Mary Lazarus getting down. Front: Mary Lazarus (Jennifer Reynolds); first row: Sister Mary Patrick (Gina Tune) and Nun (Gifty Amponsem) in ‘Sister Act.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

Sister Act is a show with stellar songs and the LTA cast does not disappoint. Over half the numbers in the musical are potential show stoppers, like the reprise of “Take Me to Heaven,” which takes on a whole new meaning when sung by the Sisters and literally stops the show…with intermission.

Another highlight is the transformative “Raise Your Voice”  when Deloris takes over the choir direction and turns the sound of dying cats into a glorious, harmonious sound-fest.

LTA’s production of Sister Act is a delightful show with a strong ensemble and uplifting music. The story is chock full of humor and silliness, but with an underlying message of self-reflection, compassion, tolerance, and selflessness. A feel-good story with a killer soundtrack? That’s downright heavenly to me.

Congratulations to the cast and crew for a job well done!

Running Time: Approximately two hours 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Sister Act runs through February 4, 2023, at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, located at 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA. Tickets range from $32 to $37 (including fees) and are available for purchase online or by calling the Box Office at 703:683:0496.

COVID Safety: LTA requires all persons attending performances to wear a mask indoors, including during the performance or event. Masks may be temporarily removed only while eating or drinking at events where food is made available to patrons.

Cast: Deloris Van Cartier: Ashley Williams, Aja Goode (Jan. 17, 18, 19); Michelle: Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo; Tina: Jenni Philip; Curtis: Paul Caffrey; TJ: Luke Martin; Ernie: Eddie Perez; Joey: Evan Zimmerman; Paola: Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo; Eddie: Alonzo Cook; Sister Mary Robert: Allison Meyer; Sister Mary Patrick: Gina Tune; Sister Mary Lazarus: Jennifer Reynolds; Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours: Margaret McGarry, Maria Ciarrocchi (Jan. 19, 20, 21); Sister Mary Theresa: Jennifer Levy; Mother Superior: Christine Maxted, Margaret McGarry (Jan. 19, 20, 21); Monsignor O’Hara: Peter Fannon; News Reporter: Sandy Kozel; Ensemble: Gifty Amponsem, Claire Aziza, Maria Ciarrocchi, Aja Goode, Julianna Laseter, James Miller, Josie Morgan, Bob Thompson, Lourdes Turnblom, David Valderrama

Crew: Producers: Kadira Coley, Alan Wray; Assistant Producer: Julie Fischer; Director: Mike Baker Jr; Music Director: Colin Taylor; Choreographer: Kathleen McCormack; Dance Captain: Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo; Vocal Director/Rehearsal Accompanist: Steven J. McBride Jr.; Stage Managers: Sherry Clarke, Michael J. O’Connor; Assistant Stage Managers: Mary Ferrara, Jennifer Rhorer; Set Design: Julie Fischer; Master Carpenters: Jim Hutzler, Jeff Nesmeyer; Lighting Design: Ken Crowley, Patti Crowley; Master Electrician: Mary Beth Smith: Toomey; Sound Design: David Correia; Costume Design: Jean Schlicting, Kit Sibley; Set Dressing: Charlotte Corneliusen; Property Design: Janie Downey; Hair/Makeup Design: Robin Maline; Wardrobe Coordinators: Margaret Snow, Robin Worthington; Rigging: Russell M. Wyland; Photographer: Matthew Randall


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