Think of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of “Sister Act” as a bright sun in this winter of our discontent. As Soara-Joye Ross, who plays the lead role of Deloris Van Cartier, puts it: “People need to come and get their ‘Sister Act’ fix. This show will fill your cup.”
The play is adapted from the classic 1990s Whoopi Goldberg film, but by all accounts this is no tossed-off remake. “No matter how much you like the film, this is definitely a notch up,” Director Cliff Baker said. “The writers have their finger on the pulse of what is it that audiences are looking for.” Alan Menken, who won Oscars for his work on Disney classics “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Pocahontas,” wrote the music. Those who enjoyed the reworkings of oldies in the film will have plenty to enjoy in his score; the original songs come together like a throwback mixtape of ’70s-era Philly soul and disco. “Because of the way he structured the harmonies, the sound really sparkles. It’s got something alive in it,” Baker said.
To breathe life into Menken’s songs, The Rep pulled together an impressive cast of both experienced Broadway players and local actors. Ross, who has had multiple roles on Broadway as well as film (“Garden State”) and television (“Crashing,” an upcoming HBO show from producer Judd Apatow), is the shining star of the show. Even in our interview, the energy she brings to the Deloris character was evident. “It feels like someone has watched me my whole life and they wrote this role for me; I’m happy to be here tackling this complex and crazy and fantastic character,” she said.
Joining her is Jennie Boone, who has portrayed Sister Mary Patrick on the “Sister Act” tour across the country and in Japan. “Every time you do it, it feels like the first time, because the audience is so involved in the show. It’s so much fun to do,” Boone said. She says she should hit her 300th “Sister Act” while performing at the Rep.
Rounding out the mostly-female cast are Monte J. Howell, who plays Curtis Jackson, Deloris’ abusive boyfriend, and P. Jay Clark, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. “I’m finding out who I am with this role,” Howell said. “I’ve always wanted to play the bad guy and I’m glad I have the chance.” Clark is a pastor at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church. “I saw there was a role for a priest who didn’t have to dance. The other thing that sold me was getting to work with Cliff,” Clark said.
Cliff Baker founded the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in 1976, and served as director until 1999 when Bob Hupp came on board. Hupp left the Rep last year and Baker stepped in as interim director during the search for a new producing director. Enter John Miller-Stephany, who comes from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, one of the country’s largest resident theaters. Baker talked about working with Miller-Stephany: “It’s an amazing staff here and they really care about the growth and health of the theater. The organization itself is going to bloom, and right now, we’re just getting its roots started in this new garden that John is planting,” he said.
Baker’s passion for this play in this particular time and place was apparent: “We need something that heals and brings people together and speaks to the power of community and also to the power of women,” he said. “The whole message is love, and empowering one another,” Howell said. “There’s a few lines in the play that really excited me and affected me as a person — as a Christian and as an American.”
Ross summed up the play’s message in her three favorite songs: “(Be) Fabulous Baby!”, “Raise Your Voice” and “Spread the Love Around.”
“Sister Act” opens Friday, Jan. 27, and plays through Sunday, Feb. 26. Sign Interpreter Night is Wednesday, Feb. 8. More info is available at therep.org/attend/productions/sisteract.