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Theater review: 'Sister Act' at RAPA

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By now, "Sister Act" is a story firmly etched into the cultural consciousness. A lounge singer aspiring to stardom finds herself in mortal danger when she accidentally witnesses her shady boyfriend murder someone; suddenly part of a witness protection program, she takes cover in a local convent, and light-hearted, slightly sacrilegious fun ensues.

It is worth noting that audience members at Rochester Association of Performing Arts' current production of "Sister Act: The Musical" expecting to hear the parodies Whoopi Goldberg made iconic in the 1992 movie version might be initially disappointed. That shouldn't be a deterrent, however. "Sister Act" is a thoroughly entertaining show with consistent and at times astonishing individual performances.

Of course, the musical hinges on the likability and talent of its protagonist, Deloris Van Cartier. Here, actor Sable Stewart was more than up to the task. From the outset, her singing was melodious and spunky, establishing credibility with the Motown-influenced opening numbers "Take Me to Heaven" and "Fabulous, Baby." Stewart's ebullient voice and charismatic stage presence seemed to grow brighter as the show went on.

In the role of Mother Superior, Deloris's foil, Phyl Contestable gave a performance that was muted and often underwhelming. Contestable lacked the severe, curmudgeonly demeanor of her character's counterpart in the film (played brilliantly by Maggie Smith). Contestable's tone was closer to that of a beleaguered grandmother. Her solo turn, "Haven't Got a Prayer," was admittedly uneven in its delivery, but Mother Superior's frustration with Deloris took on a greater dimension, eliciting sympathy even while revealing flaws of short-sighted stubbornness.

Without a doubt, the stand out of the production was Alvis Green Jr. as Lt. Eddie Souther, the policeman tasked with protecting Deloris. In a head-turning performance, Green's silken voice took on a tone and power that was unmatched. Fans of soulful R&B should be impressed whenever he takes the stage.

RAPA's production was blessed with a solid, high-energy ensemble cast, undoubtedly aided by quality songs -- by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater -- that were often slyly clever. A great example of this was "When I Find My Baby, smoothly performed here by Raul Torres, in which Deloris's bad-boy boyfriend turns pop song parlance and a love ballad aesthetic into a menacing death threat ("When I find my baby, I'm not letting her go"). Later, a parody of The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" included in the emphatic "Sunday Morning Fever" was surprisingly effective.

"Sister Act: The Musical" is ultimately a show praising music's ability to bring seemingly disparate people together. And RAPA's production succeeded.

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