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A heavenly touch in Toby's 'Sister Act'

A heavenly touch in Toby's 'Sister Act'
Ashley Johnson as Deloris Van Cartier in Toby's Dinner Theatre's production of “Sister Act” runs through Nov. 8 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road. (Submitted photo)

Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia is presenting a lively and faithful version of "Sister Act," the tale of a brassy lounge singer who seeks a protective hideaway in a nuns' convent, and find much more.

Based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, "Sister Act" is directed at Toby's by Lawrence B. Munsey, twice Helen Hayes co-director nominee with Toby Orenstein and masterful costume designer of numerous acclaimed shows. Here, he sets a benchmark for dynamic pace and energy that infuses the cast and propels the non-stop action.

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"Sister Act" is a 2011 musical by Grammy and Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken, with lyrics by Tony and Academy Award nominee Glenn Slater.

In addition to directing, Munsey shares costume design chores with Mary Quinn, creating glitzy disco wear for the dancers, appropriately outlandish garb for lead character Deloris Van Cartier and equally suitable duds for her former boyfriend's three blundering thugs.

Choreographer Mark Minnick brings this production a spark in disco numbers and scenes involving the dancing nuns, while also controlling full dance ensemble traffic to make Toby's intimate space seem capacious. Minnick also serves as associate producer.

Expert music direction is by Ross Scott Rawlings, with kudos due his six-member music crew. Contributing to production excellence is set and lighting designer David A. Hopkins and sound designer Mark Smedley.

The fun starts when the cloistered nuns welcome lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier, who after witnessing a murder committed by her boyfriend has been dropped by a protective police officer friend at the last place anyone would look.

Ashley Johnson owns the role as Deloris, projecting stellar acting, vocal power and sensuous dance moves. Firmly grounded but with strong comedic skills. From the start with "Take Me to Heaven" and "Fabulous Baby" and later in her "Here Within These Walls" duet with Mother Superior, Johnson defines every vocal number.

An exciting Toby's debut is made by Hasani Allen as Deloris' devoted police officer protector "Sweaty" Eddy, who secretly pines for the singer. He shows a soulful side and impressive vocal chops in his major solo "I Could Be that Guy."

Another soulful player of a different stripe is Robert Biedermann as Monsignor O'Hara, who maintains order at the convent while stealing more than a few scenes with his funky moves.

Additional noteworthy male players include Deloris' menacing boyfriend Curtis Jackson, fearsomely played by DeCarlo Raspberry. he delivers a memorable "When I Find My Baby," expressing his dark intent.

Jackson's trio of bumbling supporters are portrayed by Russell Sunday, Moses Bernal and Tobias Young – all three skilled comedians with vocal prowess. Young delivers a show-stopping "Lady in the Long Black Dress" with Sunday and Bernal joining in with distinction.

As Mother Superior, Lynn Sharp-Spears displays a stunning voice and range in the reverent "Here Within These Walls" and the lighter, humorous "I Haven't Got a Prayer."

The convent is home to a group of nuns striving to practice the dictates of their faith as distinct individuals who are intrigued by Deloris and open to her empowering suggestions. Convent choir members MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Erica Clare, Samantha McEwen Deininger, Rachel Kemp, Santina Maiolatesi, Ashley Nicholas and Elizabeth Rayca are gifted singers who create inspired harmonies and a heavenly sound.

Among the nuns adding humor and dramatic substance are Amy Haynes as Sister Mary Patrick, Teresa Danskey as Sister Mary Robert, Lynne Sigler as Sister Mary Lazarus and Jane Boyle as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours. Their rapport with Johnson's Deloris instills greater confidence in their innate worth as empowered women.

Minnick's amazing choreography is superbly executed by brilliant dancers who bring every number alive with high polish, most notably by Andre Hinds, Jeffrey Shankle and David Jennings. Adding comedic punch, Hinds summons exotic moves for his flamboyant drag queen routine. From fun to funky to John Travolta-like "Saturday Night Fever" moves, the dancing is awesome.

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Toby's production of "Sister Act" runs through Nov. 8 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road. For tickets call 301-596-6161 or 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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