CHICAGO’S NEW HABIT
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org November 7, 2012 12:58PM
◆ Nov. 13-Dec. 2
◆ Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, Chicago
◆ Tickets, $28-$103
◆ (800) 775-2000;
Updated: December 10, 2012 6:13AM
There is something about a nun in full habit — the wimple, tunic, scapular, rosary and all the rest — that fits right into the theatrical imagination. The opera stage is full of women in such religious garb. They are crucial to such dramas as “Doubt,” “Agnes of God” and Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” And they are front and center in “The Sound of Music,” “Nunsense” and that Chicago-bred frolic, “Late Nite Catechism.”
And then, of course, there is “Sister Act,” the hit musical based on the 1992 film comedy that starred Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer in Reno, Nev., who finds herself pursued by gangsters and is sent into hiding at a convent overseen by Maggie Smith as Mother Superior. It’s a story in which sin, salvation, disguises, the ladies of the convent and ladies of the night all cross paths.
First seen in regional theaters in 2006 and 2007, “Sister Act” — with an original score by Oscar- and Tony-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater — was produced in London’s West End in 2009, where, during the run, Goldberg, a producer of the show, briefly played the Mother Superior role. The musical arrived on Broadway two years later in a revised version, with Jerry Zaks as its new director and with Douglas Carter Beane supplying new material for the Cheri and Bill Steinkellner book.
Chicago will get its first look at the show beginning Nov. 13, when the national touring production — starring Chicago veteran Hollis Resnik (who just received a Jeff Award for her role in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “Follies”) as Mother Superior, and Ta’Rea Campbell as Deloris Van Cartier — arrives at the Auditorium Theatre.
“I always called this story a musical, even when it was a movie with music,” said Goldberg, during a brief phone chat in which any discussion about politics or “The View” were off-limits. “But in the musical, the Deloris character is somewhat different. She is younger, she can actually sing, and she is more of an aspiring star who becomes great. It just makes more sense.”
So what is the key to a musical that works?
“I really don’t know, because if I did, all of them would work, and they don’t,” said Goldberg, whose 2011 venture, “White Noise,” which had a tryout in Chicago, went nowhere. “The one thing I DO know is that you have to give audiences someone to bet on, someone they want to take a journey with. And in ‘Sister Act’ it’s the universal story of a girl with a big dream who gets into the wrong crowd but ultimately finds a place where she can belong.
“My first hope was that we could do the musical using the original Motown songs of the period. But those rights were just not available to us. Then we found Alan Menken [“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”]. I wasn’t sure he could do the disco sound, but he said ‘Let me play something for you,’ and he went on to give us an extraordinary score.”
While Goldberg has her TV talk show “day job,” she still is drawn to the stage and is working on an original piece (written with Ellen Sebastian Chang) about Moms Mabley, the groundbreaking African-American comedian, which she hopes to perform in late 2013. She’ll also continue her role as drama school dean Carmen Tibideaux on the Fox TV show “Glee.”
“Whoopi came to see our last rehearsal in Toronto,” said Resnik, who was performing in the Canadian city, and looking forward to a brief break before opening in Chicago. “She was funny and charming, and brought us a cake from London. And she reminded us to stay healthy on the road, because it’s not an easy life.”
“‘Sister Act’ is a great, glitzy show for the masses, with wild hair, and sequins, and mirror balls, and a pop sound,” said Resnik, who has played everything from the mother in “Angels in America” (at Court Theatre) to the Old Lady in “Candide” (at Goodman), to the dual roles in the musical “Grey Gardens” (at Northlight), and has appeared in national tours of “Les Miz,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”
Resnik is frank about her decision to do a national tour (“It just made sense for financial reasons”), but she also says she is delighted to be working with director Jerry Zaks, “who is so skilled at putting together a scene in terms of great comic timing.”
“I do prefer working in more intimate venues than the big proscenium houses on the road,” said Resnik. “But that’s Broadway. Certain emotional norms are lost, but there is so much more going on around the actors, and in shows like this it all pays off, including some sensational arm choreography for the nuns, whose feet you don’t see.”
And there are perks.
“We’ll be playing in Florida in December and January before heading back into winter in Boston,” said Resnik, who plans to drive rather than fly to engagements once spring rolls around. “Many of the show’s stops will be in the Midwest, so I’ll be able to come home to take my tango dancing classes in Chicago on my days off.”
And while the actress has signed up for a year on the road, she also negotiated “an out” if she is cast in “Jungle Book,” Mary Zimmerman’s new show based on the Disney film that debuts at the Goodman Theatre in June.
“I’d love to work with Mary on something from the ground up,” said Resnik.