“Sister Act” at Theatre Rhinoceros

San Francisco, CA
at Theatre Rhinoceros

Theater Rhinoceros’ gender-bending production of Sister Act brings an updated excitement to this early 1990’s staged musical that really benefits from the quality, energy, and queer freshness that director AeJay Mitchell’s vision delivers in the intimate Gateway Theatre.

The Cast of SISTER ACT
The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by David Wilson

The show is simply a lot of fun. A supremely good 2 1/2 hours of entertainment.

The plot is simple and simplistic, and it comes from the hit 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name. A gangster’s (Curtis played by Crystal Liu) moll (Deloris played by Branden Noel Thomas) runs afoul of the mob and has to hide in an unlikely place, a nunnery. The moll is helped by a good cop (Eddie played by Jarrett Holley). She makes friends with most of the sisters, especially a novice (Sister Mary Robert played by Abigail Campbell). The Mother Superior (played by Kim Larsen) is a sourpuss most of the play, but in the end Deloris, Mother Superior, and all of the nuns affirm their sisterhood. It’s a light, antic, feel-good structure designed to showcase the singing and dancing of the actors.

The musical focuses mainly on enjoyable scenes sugared with blatant moments of touching emotion that are so set up that I hate to admit I felt like tearing up during a couple of them. Of course I didn’t tear up for the schlocky heartstrings-tugging moments, but it’d be okay if you did.

This Sister Act owes its success to a massive amount of talent on stage and in the crafts. Theatre Rhino properly uses the fluffy story as backdrop for boisterous performances, and the actors and costumes deliver!

Branden Noel Thomas’ Deloris unleashes a force of nature. His/her voice could carry the show on its own, but it’s paired with a body filled with C2 that explodes in a barely controlled way in scene after scene. Thomas alternates and combines belting out songs with strong aerobic choreography (also designed by AeJay Mitchell). But, Thomas also slows down and exploits the tender moments of the show. He’s extremely impressive.

Branden Noel Thomas* as Deloris in SISTER ACT.
Branden Noel Thomas as Deloris in SISTER ACT.
Photo by David Wilson.

Other actors deserve special applause.

Abigail Campbell’s Sister Mary Robert as the nunnery’s novice is a perfect counter to Deloris’ barely-under-wraps, worldly lounge singer. Thomas as Deloris is a hefty mountain of in-your-face flesh, and is armed with a supremely secure voice. Campbell counters with a small frame and a much lighter tone. While Campbell overcomes her insecure attitude and allows her timid voice to roar by the end of the show, the balance between the styles and characters is both appropriate and satisfying.

Kim Larsen as Mother Superior provides a different, but also complementary, show-enriching contrast to Deloris. Larsen sings with meaning and feeling (and class and quality), often slowing down the ambient madness. He avoids being a hammy prude caricature, and instead fulfills the necessary foil role. Well, he is hammy at times, but not an annoying spotlight-hogging ham. It’s a difficult balance, and Larsen carries it off.

Joyce Domanico-Huh as Joey, John Charles Quimpo as T. J., Crystal Liu as Curtis, and Abraham Baldonado as Pablo. Photo by David Wilson.
Joyce Domanico-Huh as Joey, John Charles Quimpo as T. J., Crystal Liu as Curtis, and Abraham Baldonado as Pablo.
Photo by David Wilson.

A third acting standout of the show is Jarrett Holley as the police officer. The richness and sweetness of his voice make his songs unreasonably pleasurable. I loved his fantasy role-switching scene, and whenever he was onstage he added to the depth of the characters and story.

Crystal Liu’s stereotypical villainous mobster Curtis also worked completely. Liu was sexist, crass, self-centered, and fun. She brought a strong, if not menacing, sound to Curtis’ songs. I even enjoyed her faked pencil mustache drawn to masculine-up, if not butch-up, the character.

By the way, the gender swapping of Deloris, Curtis, and Mother Superior, the male nuns, the female mobster boys, and the other gender non-conforming casting is never acknowledged. There’s not even a knowing wink or nod. Nor should it have been. Maybe the gender switching made the show more qualified for the Theatre Rhinoceros season — the 41st season of the world’s longest-running queer theater. But, this Sister Act never jumped the shark and pretended to be a over-the-top drag queen romp. The production aims for — and achieves — quality, not kitsch.

My final special appreciation is for David Draper’s costumes. I loved how Deloris went from wearing slutty tight lounge singer outfits with gaudy accessories to nun habits. And, the moments of patterns and color on all the actors were especially striking after several scenes of the black and white nuns. Very fun.

Theatre Rhinoceros also coped well with the stress of putting on a large-cast musical as a community theater company. Only Thomas/Deloris is an experienced Equity actor, yet the cast delivered a professional show. I heard a show craft member worry about the production glitches he noticed in the performance I saw… but I was not distracted as an audience member by what grabbed his attention.

In fact, we all left the theater feeling spectacularly entertained. We’d heard excellent singing. We’d experienced fun dance moves. We’d enjoyed a well acted, happy story.

Theatre Rhinoceros’ Sister Act is very, very good live entertainment — go see it!

Disclaimer: I do Internet work for Theatre Rhinoceros. My opinions here are really what I think. But, I admit, that if I hated the production, I would have simply not mentioned it!

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