2016 – Sister Act

Winner of two NODA Awards

Leonie Airlie for Best Performance & ASMS Best Production

Sister Act takes you to Heaven! – Northumberland Gazette – March 2016.

Thank the Lord that I managed to book myself a seat at this sold-out show. Simply put, this divine musical comedy is an absolute hoot from start to finish, with heavenly performances, catchy tunes, a stunningly-beautiful set and glitzy costumes.

They say that fortune favours the brave, and this is certainly the case with Alnwick Stage Musical Society’s latest offering. Sister Act, based on the hit 1992 film comedy of the same name, is one of the biggest productions that the local community group has tackled over the years. And boy do they deliver.

Under the directorship of Michael Pearson, this scream of a production is arguably one of the best amateur shows to have graced the Alnwick Playhouse stage. It is the best bar ‘nun’, you could say. Enough of the religious puns already!

For those who don’t know, Sister Act centres on nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier who witnesses a gangland murder by her mobster boyfriend Curtis. For her own protection, she is placed by police in a convent, disguised as a nun. She transforms the tuneless, lack-luster choir into a boogying, sparkling group, belting out disco-style and Motown-flavoured numbers and becoming such a sensation that even the Pope wants to see them!

Sister Act certainly is an ambitious production, especially for an amateur group and particularly as the hit film – one of the most financially successful comedies of the early 1990s and rated #83 on Bravo’s The 100 Funniest Movies list – is so well known and so well loved. But the Society pull it off, epitomised by the audience’s rapturous applause at the end of the show yesterday evening. Some in the crowd even stood to show their appreciation. Not bad going for opening night.

Indeed, there are times when you forget that some of those on stage aren’t professional. This is certainly the case with the show’s two stand-out performers, Leonie Dial (Van Cartier) and Mariana Santiago-Bennett (Mother Superior). Their acting was captivating and their vocals were top notch, setting the bar incredibly high for other amateurs who will perform at the Playhouse in the years to come.

In the programme notes, Dial said that playing Van Cartier – a character made so famous by Whoopi Goldberg – was a ‘role of a lifetime’. Dial clearly relished the challenge, because she stood up to this, and some. She was outstanding as the production’s principal. She gave a thoroughly absorbing performance as the wisecracking Deloris – or Sister Mary Clarence as she is known in the convent – packed with energy, expression and precision comic timing. She well and truly lived and breathed the role. Amen Sister!!

Santiago-Bennett, meanwhile, was every bit as authoritative and devout as the stoic Mother Superior should be, although it was a joy to see her cut loose at the end of the production, when she breaks away from the rigidity of the cloth and gets her groove on. She makes that transition from strict Mother Superior to diva incredibly well.

But the pair weren’t the only ones to shine on the night. The nuns were a joy to behold and witnessing their transformation from a dreadful choir to a group of soulful and hip songbirds was delightful and amusing. Among them, Lynne Lambert was terrific as the gravel-voiced Sister Mary Lazarus, who caused many in the audience to smile at her amusing portrayal. Her rap in one of the songs was wonderfully comical and duly received the praise it deserved from the crowd.

If Lambert is one of the Society’s veterans – having been a member since 1988 – then 16-year-old Meg Fletcher is one of the group’s babies. In what is her first Society production, the teenager showed that she is a star in the making. She was perfect as Sister Mary Robert, with a quiet, meek and innocent performance and her vocals were fine too. In fact, not to draw too many comparisons between this production and the film, but Fletcher reminded me very much of Wendy Makkena who played Sister Mary Robert in the movie. Due to licensing restrictions, Fletcher will be sharing the role with Ellie Hamblett, herself 16 and making her Society debut. Having performed on opening night, Fletcher will also take to the stage tomorrow and Sunday, while Hamblett will star tonight and on Saturday.

The hapless wise-guy trio of Harry Brierley (TJ), Peter Biggers (Joey) and Hannah Watson (Pablo) gave suitably comic performances as the henchmen of ‘The Boss’ Curtis, played by Phil Gregory, who was convincing as the show’s bad guy. He gave an almost pantomime villain feel to the role – although not in any way gimmicky or cheesy – and there were times towards the end where I thought his appearance on stage might attract a boo or a hiss from the audience. Worthy of a mention is Biggers’ seduction routine, which raised many a laugh.

From the show’s mobsters to the production’s good guy – take a bow Darren Lewis, who played policeman Sweaty Eddie. He was terrific as the shy and bungling cop, who turns out to be the unlikely hero. His vocals were decent and his speedy change from police uniform to disco star and then back again was memorable and was a great piece of work by the wardrobe department. Anthony Stoker (Monsignor O’Hara) and Sally Black (Sister Mary Patrick) also delivered fine performances.

When it wasn’t the cast catching your eye, it was the stunning set – in particular, the convent. Quite simply, wow! The stained-glass windows are beautiful and the use of light is dazzling. On top of this, the costumes are shiny, sparkling and a visual treat. It all sets you up for a colourful, larger-than-life, glitzy romp of a show that will have you dancing in your seat and leaving the auditorium with a huge smile on your face.

The dance routines were well executed and were nicely varied and thought out by choreographer Georgia Robinson, who runs her own traveling dance school, GL Dance, across north Northumberland. The routines complimented the show’s catchy soundtrack, with tunes such as Take Me To Heaven and Good To Be A Nun.

This all came to life thanks to director Michael Pearson, who helped mastermind this mammoth show into a smooth, flowing, entertaining feast of song, dance and humour. In the programme notes, he admits that Sister Act: The Musical has been a long time in the making, with him wanting to put on the show since 2009, when he saw it in London’s West End. Well his dream has finally come true and last night’s performance certainly proved that good things come to those who wait.

His desire to see the show staged at the Playhouse has been rewarded by the fact that all six performances have been sold out. Places for Sister Act were snapped up quicker than any of the group’s previous productions, with more than 1,500 tickets sold well in advance of yesterday’s curtain-raiser. The full-to-capacity crowd will not be disappointed and those who missed out may be praying that there are returns (call the box office on 01665 510785 to check).

Sister Act comes as the Society celebrates its 30th anniversary. It is a perfect way to mark the milestone and on this evidence, let’s hope that this well-renowned group can continue to entertain audiences for another three decades to come.

CAST: Leonie Dial, Mariana Santiago-Bennett, Meg Fletcher, Ellie Hamblett, Lynne Lambert, Sally Black, Darren Lewis, Anthony Stoker, Phil Gregory, Harry Brierley, Peter Biggers, Hannah Watson, Jane Smith, Arlene Cadman, Paul Tutleman, Sarah Purvis, Sarah Buist, Lisa Gladstone, Melanie Grey, Katie Robertson, Frances Buckingham, Taura Stewart, Becca Gray, Barbara Naylor, Sally Pumford, Carol Knowles, Nikki Buckley-Feiven, Margaret Reece, Sheila Graham, Carole Green, Vickie Allen, Christine Trotter, Sandra Appleby, Anne Burn, Mary Mewett, Teresa McQuillen, Mary Walker.

CREW: Michael Pearson (director), Ali Wrangham (assistant director), Peter Brown (musical director), Georgia Robinson (choreographer), Virginia Mayes-Wright and Mick Grant (stage manager and assistant stage manager).

BAND: Peter Brown, Martha Carrdus, Kenneth Belsham, David Smith, Kirsteen Gray, Mark Gray, Gavin Johnston, George Dodds, Glen Hogg, Ron Creasey.

James Willoughby

All Sister Act images courtesy of Chris Green

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