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A bold take on musical 'Sister Act'

For The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's choice to open its 50th season with "Sister Act" reflects the troupe's commitment to expand its artistic vision while exploiting the adaptability of this unique outdoor setting.

Annapolis becomes 1970s Philadelphia, where we discover nightclub diva Deloris Van Cartier, her backup singers and their gangster boyfriends. The plot is simple: As a potential witness to bad deeds, Deloris is whisked off by police to the protective confines of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Help convent.

Annapolis' take on this musical is bold, spanning diverse social and religious viewpoints — from sheltered nuns to hardened mobsters. This is chillingly expressed by Deloris' mobster lover, Curtis, directing his associates to find and kill her.

Contrasting viewpoints blend in the convent as the nuns become acquainted with new choir director Sister Mary Clarence — aka Deloris — who adds fun to the music to bring additional parishioners to the pews.

The music reflects contrasts inspired by the choir's expanding friendship of opposites. Every woman becomes stronger. Although largely unexpressed in the 1994 film version starring Whoopi Goldberg, this production traces that growth of the nuns — each profoundly changed by Deloris's Sister Mary Clarence as she is also changed by the sisters' acceptance of her.

Missing her nightclub singer life at first and feeling trapped in the convent, Deloris realizes what she has gained in an environment surrounded by strong, accepting women.

The convent is brought to life by director Clare Shaffer, who says she recognizes "the beauty and harmony in the differences more than in similarities," reminding us we can learn from people who are different from ourselves.

Music director Paige Rammelkamp earns kudos for creating an inspiring chorus to make the most of a largely mediocre score with a few shining exceptions. Contributing greatly to Alan Menken's music is an eight-member band conducted by pianist Ken Kimble.

Most of the musical high points come in solos by Kanysha Williams, who gives superb treatment as star diva Deloris. Williams blazes brilliantly, instantly commanding our attention and holding it through the entire performance. She gives dynamic distinction to such numbers as "Fabulous, Baby" and rises to new heights at the convent with the rousing title song.

Also shining are Deloris' harmonizing backup singers — Jasmine Jones as Michelle and Emily Sergo as Tina, shimmying and shaking with her own funky charm.

Adding excitement to nightclub scenes are gangster guys Curtis, played by Theodore Sapp; Kyle Eshom as TJ; Jeff Hawkins as Joey and Daniel Santiago as Pablo. Sapp delivers a show-stopping love song in "When I Find My Baby," backed up with spinoff Temptations moves by Eshom, Hawkins and Santiago.

Still carrying a teenage crush on Deloris, Sweaty Eddie, played by Josh Mooney, displays his solid vocal chops in a soulful "I Could Be That Guy" and later provides protection for Deloris.

Debuting at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre is Debbie Mobley, perfectly cast as Mother Superior. Her interaction with Williams' Deloris is fully credible, and her singing of "Here Within These Walls" is an inspirational highlight.

After a 41-year absence from Annapolis stages, Greg Jones Ellis returns to give life to Monsignor O'Hara. The monsignor initially doubts he can save the church, then has his hope restored by a rocking choir that brings in worshipers — and eventually concert receipts. Ellis' ecstatic "Sunday Morning Fever" provides another show highlight.

In this talented cast of 20, other notable standouts include Rachel Perry as shy Sister Mary Robert, Kylie Airin Sjolie as comical Sister Mary Patrick and Traci Denhardt as sassy Sister Mary Lazarus.

"Sister Act" continues through June 17 at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered by calling 410-268-9212, or go to summergarden.com.

The troupe has also just announced it will host "Light Up the Stars," a fundraiser evening to benefit Stage/2 Power Up campaign. Check the website for additional information,

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