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The Play-Goer: Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s Sister Act

Rocking with televangelical energy

On the lam in a convent, nightclub singer Deloris (Kanysha Williams) befriends Sisters Mary Patrick (Kylie Sjolie, far left) and Mary Martin-of-Tours (Stephanie Bernholz) and policeman Sweaty Eddie (Josh Mooney). Mother Superior (Debbie Mobley, right), however, wants Deloris gone.

Surely you remember Whoopi Goldberg in the hit film Sister Act? How outsized she was as nightclub chanteuse Deloris Van Cartier, how woefully entangled with her married mobster boyfriend, how terrified when she saw him shoot a man in cold blood and how hilarious she was masquerading as a nun? Hold that thought …

            Forget the music. Substitute an original soundtrack of soul and R&B tunes for the film’s repurposed oldies, and you have the stage version, written in 2006 by Alan Menken (composer of Tangled and a half dozen other Disney flicks). With righteous leads, half of whom are new to Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, this production rocks with televangelical energy.

            Kanysha Williams plays Deloris the quintessential diva, all flash and flesh opposite her criminal sugar daddy. Curtis (Theodore Sapp) has three associates on his side: dimwitted TJ (Kyle Eshom), raunchy Joey (Jeff Hawkins) and excitable Pablo (Daniel Santiago). Deloris has only her back-up singers — Michelle (Jasmine Jones) and Tina (Emily J. Sergo) — plus Sweaty Eddie (Josh Mooney) of the Philadelphia Police Department, a shy guy with a crush.

            Eddie hides Deloris in a foundering urban convent, where she befriends the shrinking postulant Sister Mary Robert (Rachel Perry), ebullient Sister Mary Patrick (Kylie Airin Sjolie) and sassy Sister Mary Lazarus (Traci Denhardt). Everyone succumbs to Deloris’s charms and unorthodox vocal arrangements — except dour Mother Superior (Debbie Mobley), who wants her gone. Even Monsignor O’Hara (Greg Jones Ellis) warms to her schismatic music ministry as it transports the parish to public acclaim and solvency.

            There is so much inspired singing it’s hard to pick favorites. Williams wows in the title song and with her sequined sidekicks in Fabulous Baby. She raises Cain with Perry, Sjolie and the other sisters doing Latin scat in Raise Your Voice, while Mobley maintains the contemplative tradition in Here Within These Walls.

            In a show written to showcase women’s voices, however, it is the men who raise the rafters. Sapp slays in the murderous ballad When I Find My Baby. He’s Luther Vandross-smooth and Eddie Murphy-funny, backed up with Temptations-inspired dance moves by henchmen Eshom, Hawkins and Santiago. I would buy a ticket just to see this number again. The thuggish threesome is uproarious in the campy Lady in the Long Black Dress. Mooney stuns with his fantasy lament I Could Be That Guy, and Ellis is resplendent in Sunday Morning Fever. This entire cast has pipes like a cathedral organ and a strong sense of character that overwhelms the tendency to caricature that such a production invites.

            As good as these performances were on opening night, delayed a day due to rain, it’s a sin how poor the technical aspects of this show went. Faces in shadows, malfunctioning mics and even a key scene lost to amplification issues made it a frustrating affair that should be ironed out by the time you read this. When all goes well, it’s divine. Sister Act is irreverent fun with a playful cast of Carmelites who will have you shimmying, head-bobbing and rolling in your seat.

            Sister Act by Alan Menken, Glenn Slater and Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. Director: Clare Shaffer. Musical director: Paige Rammelkamp. Choreographer: Rikki Lacewell. Stage Manager: Sydney Biuk. Set: April Joy Vester. Costumer: Lin Whetzel. Lights: Kaitlyn Peacock. Sound: Dale Brown. Musicians: Ken Kimble, Rich Estrin, Randy Neilson, Paul Penell, Allyson Wesley, Reid Bowman, Jeff Eckert and Declan Hughes.

            Playing thru June 17, Th-Su 8:30pm plus W June 14: Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, $25, rsvp: 410-268-9212; www.summergarden.com. Two hours forty-five minutes with intermission. Adult themes.