Mid-season hit ‘Sister Act’ solidifies Slow Burn’s Broadway-Quality Trajectory

The middle child is often considered the quiet one, and nothing special in the family.  Slow Burn Theatre Company’s mid-season blockbuster hit SISTER ACT – which comes on the heels of earning a Carbonell for programming and a record-breaking season – has turned “middle malaise” upside down by managing, once again, to make their exhilarated audiences feel this is their “best show ever!” Till they see the next one, of course. 

With two more to go that happen to exemplify both ends of the company’s musical spectrum – i.e. “The Prom” and “The SpongeBob Musical” – Slow Burn’s artistic director/director of “Sister Act” Patrick Fitzwater felt this mid-way point also presented the perfect opportunity to get his audience excited about their upcoming 2024/2025 Season which begins in October. While the current season embraced many childhood favorites everyone can love, next season, like “Sister Act,” appears to skew more adult and also (what I love) ventures further afield. The company has already branched out from relying solely on local talent (though there’s still plenty of that) to importing the best actors from anywhere. For next season, they’ve added an intriguing, out-of-ordinary lineup that includes award-winners local audiences may not have seen before. Or, in some cases, even heard of. 

So before embarking on a rave review of their latest, standing-ovation production of “Sister Act,” I’ll share my Saturday matinee experience which began with the usual robust welcome by Fitzwater. But this time, he included an introduction to the company’s upcoming season, scheduled to reflect the changing seasons in our calendar. 

Fall features “The Witches of Eastwick.” Based on John Updike’s 1984 novel and the 1987 film, the West End production was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Musical. It’s scheduled for Slow Burn’s home, the ideally-sized Amaturo Theater at Broward Center, during the Halloween-frenzy month of October.

Next up, for late December (inspired by beloved films and coinciding with the holidays), “Anastasia: The Musical” brings us on an epic adventure from the twilight of the Russian empire to the euphoria of 1920s Paris. An ideal theatrical experience for the whole family, the show boasts a soaring score filled with animation movie favorites. 

Pulitzer and Tony-Award winning “Parade” arrives during the Valentine’s Day month of February, and follows the struggles of Jewish newlyweds, Leo and Lucille Frank, in the red hills of Georgia. When Leo is falsely accused of a horrific crime in 1913, not only is their love tested but also their faith and belief in justice and humanity. A beautifully presented, moving story, but best leave the little ones at home for this one.

April Fools month brings all the exuberant zaniness of “Something Rotten,” a hilarious time-travel journey back to 1595 where two brothers attempt to compete with established superstar Shakespeare by writing the world’s first musical. A show New York Magazine referred to as a mashup of “The Producers + The Book of Mormon x The Drowsy Chaperon, Squared!”

Slow Burn’s season ends in June with a hot summer thriller. Loaded with music, of course. You’ll have to hold yourself back from singing along to the Whitney Houston favorites that populate “The Bodyguard: The Musical,” another West End hit, based on the 1992 Bodyguard film. Also more suited for teens and adults.

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Now on to my review of “Sister Act.” From the second Mandi Jo John alights onstage, her presence is mesmerizing. When she unleashes her voice, we can’t help but be amazed. Her vocal talent and personality scream “star quality” – exactly what her character, Deloris Van Cartier, yearns for as she auditions with great backup singers Michelle (Kristi Rose Mills) and Tina (Lauren Maria Abraham) for nightclub owner/gangster boss (who’s also her married boyfriend), Curtis Jackson (Chaz Rose). At first, Curtis’s goons agree with us – Deloris’s rendition of “Take Me to Heaven” makes her absolutely ready to appear onstage at his club, but he cows them into backing his opinion that she’s not, while putting her off. 

Hallelujah! Mandi Jo John as Sister Mary Clarence, aka Deloris, and all her fellow Sister
Marys save the future of their nunnery when her lively, disco-inspired “Sister Act” takes
off. Photo by Larry Marano.

The dazzling opening act, by itself, reveals the two dominant features that make this musical so special. 1. The fantastic vocals (while lead Mandi Jo John is amazing, just about every primary cast member gets their moment in the spotlight and they are uniformly A-plus voice talents!). And 2. The show’s ongoing, laugh-out-loud humor that’s easy to grasp and much needed “medicine” for our stress-laden lives. Comic relief is amply provided by Curtis’s incompetent posse composed of Joey (Ryan Crout), Pablo (Gianfranco Imbert), and TJ (Darius J. Manuel). But like everyone in this musical, they also get to sing – as back-up to Curtis in “When I Find My Baby” in Act One, and on their own in Act Two via “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Most songs reflect the catchy disco beat of the late 1970s, when our story takes place.

Deloris is furious when she discovers Curtis’s Christmas present isn’t the white ermine she’d longed for but rather a cast-off coat that belonged to his wife Cynthia. She decides to tell him off, announcing, “I don’t need Curtis. I can do undiscovered all by myself.”

Her unlucky timing places her in his office just as he’s shot an informer, who’s body lies prone at his feet. Deloris knows enough to get out of there fast, insisting, “I saw nothing,”  Curtis nonetheless sends his goons in hot pursuit with instructions to bring her back and “if she doesn’t want to come back, kill her.” 

Pursued by flying bullets, Deloris hightails it to the Philadelphia police department where she’s met by desk chief Eddie Souther (David L. Murray Jr.), a classmate from old schooldays who’d had a crush on her for years and whom she still calls “Sweaty Eddie.” We discover that the murder victim was indeed a snitch (an undercover cop) and the department needs Deloris as a witness, but to keep her safe, she must enter witness protection. And what better place than a cloistered Catholic convent where she can hide out as a nun. 

Gangster club boss Curtis Jackson (Chaz Rose) won’t be contradicted by his posse of
goons when he tells a disbelieving Deloris Van Cartier (Mandi Jo John) that he’ll launch
her singing career when she’s ready, and she’s not there yet. Photo by Larry Marano.

The next vocalist to absolutely blow us away is Paulette Oliva as the convent’s Mother Superior who runs the place as if it still were the Middle Ages “Here Within These Walls.” We also see her address the convent’s hopelessly off-key choir with, “Remember God loves us when we sing. Even like that.” 

Mother Superior is not at all happy when asked to provide sanctuary for a flamboyant, foul-mouthed wayward woman. But Deloris arrives with a substantial financial donation from the governor, which the convent desperately needs, so she agrees. Feeling God won’t listen to her prayers for deliverance from Deloris, she belts out “Haven’t Got a Prayer.”  

But when she decides to employ Deloris in the one job she’s good at – to train her tone-deaf choir to sing harmoniously for an upcoming show – the Sister Act is born and, with it, a path to everyone’s salvation. Deloris (now called Sister Mary Clarence after the patron saint of prisoners) wins over and enhances the lives of all the other Sister Marys – especially young postulant Sister Mary Robert (Mikayla Cohen) whose eyes are opened to “The Life I Never Led.” Deloris instills confidence and pride, along with perfect pitch. Though one especially loud nun (Ellie Pattison as Sister Mary Lazarus) remains loud, but more pleasing, when they all sing “Raise Your Voice.” 

Two worlds collide when nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier (Mandi Jo John) enters
witness protection at a convent run by the antiquated rules of a flummoxed Mother
Superior (Paulette Oliva). Photo by Larry Marano.

Deloris is more than a ray of sunshine; she proves to be a blessing for everyone she meets. Her contemporary revamp of traditional choir songs is not only embraced by the Monsignor (Matthew E. Korinko), who considers her “a godsend,” but also attracts benefactors who save the convent from an imminent sale. Her efforts even achieve the blessing of Pope Paul VI! And finally, love-lorn and gun-shy Ernie mans up in order to save, and win, the woman of his dreams.

In all, this gloriously sung musical with a bright and happy ending will leave you standing on your feet and humming along with the company’s closing number, “Spread the Love Around.” Time to spread a little love now to all the talented people in the background who made this production possible. First thank you goes to the creators: it’s based on the movie written by Joseph Howard. For the wondrous musical version, we can applaud Alan Menken for music, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. 

Sweaty Eddie (David L. Murray Jr.) becomes Hero Eddie when he rescues the love of
his life, Deloris (Mandi Jo John), from certain death and, despite shocked nun onlookers,
they share a passionate kiss. Photo by Larry Marano.

For our show, Sean McClelland’s scenic design – which went from nightclub, to bar, to imposing church exterior, and beautiful stained glass windowed interior, all enhanced by Clifford Spulock’s lighting – added impressive background beauty. 

We appreciate the ongoing expertise of music director Wilkie Ferguson, choreographer Trent Soyster and technical director Timothy S. Dickey. Ryan Crout (who played goon Joey) also served as vocal captain, while Nicolette Quintero was dance captain. In addition to his always sure hand at direction, Patrick Fitzwater was also responsible for sound and wig design while those outrageously flashy habits and more were the work of costume coordinator Rick Pena with costumes provided by Costume World Theatrical.

SISTER ACT is only running through February 18. For tickets to this season’s shows, next season’s shows, and to sign up for Slow Burn’s upcoming 15th Anniversary Season as a season subscriber – where you get all five shows at a discount and are guaranteed your seat – head to www.slowburntheatre.org. Or call 954-462-0222 for single tickets. For season tickets call 954-468-3280. Tickets are also for sale in person at Broward Center’s AutoNation Box Office. All Slow Burn performances are held at the smaller, elegant, and fabulous sight-line Amaturo Theater at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale 33312.

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