Sister Act - DOS
Hallelujah, rejoice and praise be to DOS
For some, the signal for the end of summer, the start of Autumn and, dare I say, the run up to Christmas, comes with changing the clocks, golden leaves and the first strains of Slade; but for me it is always the opening night of Darlington Operatic Society's Autumn show. This year, the uber-talented gang bring their take on the ecclesiastical smash hit, Sister Act, and oh how the choir sings loud.
The story remains true to the hit film which starred Whoopie Goldberg as aspiring Vegas club singer Deloris Van Cartier (as in the diamonds) who is unwillingly forced to take refuge in a convent church after witnessing a gangland murder by her part time boyfriend and manager Curtis. The underlying plot could be straight from a Disney movie, outsider refuses to bend to the ways of the establishment, finds she has some redeeming qualities to share and ultimately both sides learn more about tolerance and acceptance while the bad guys get their just desserts.
Having been to see the original show on tour, fresh from the West End, I was a little concerned - the production we had sat through at Sunderland Empire felt rushed and contrived to simply give the leads every chance to " belt out a few" to the detriment of the story or supporting cast. I wasn't sure if I had seen a poor show or just a poorly directed one but I had no reason at all to be fearful. Under the expert directorship of Joanne Hand, this version is wonderfully paced, gives the audience ample time to recognise the multiple strands of story and yet still finds every opportunity to showcase what must be the best amateur cast in the country. No stranger to tackling challenging shows (Jo brought the award winning Strictly Musicals to the stage this time last year) Ms Hand once again proves that she has the vision, the skills and the confidence in her performers to aim for the very top and then go one better.
Playing Deloris, which is a truly demanding role both physically and emotionally, is to be shared by Claire Wilmer (who took the opening night) and Rhiannon Walker; the girls will alternate so I hope to go to another show later in the run and report back on Rhiannon's performance. On speaking to Joanne Hand after last nights opener, she confirmed that it is difficult to tell the two apart; both have an amazing vocal range, both bring their own style of sexy and sassy, and both made the decision to cast only one impossible, hence the shared role.
Of course, the show is not just about Deloris and where would DOS be without a stellar supporting cast, each of whom would undoubtedly enhance any production company in the UK. Perennial favourite Sam Morrison as Mother Superior brings a degree of calm contemplation in her struggles with God's choice to allow Deloris sanctuary. As always, every note, every phrase and every emotion is right on the nail. Beth Stobbart, Darlington's very own Good Witch, plays Sister Mary Robert, the innocent and wide eyed novice who sees in Deloris excitement, danger and opportunity - it is amazing to think that Beth is still very young (won't give away her actual age) and yet has played a huge part in the DOS family for many years.
The rest of the Sister-hood are all given their parts to play too, cameo characters without whom the show would simply become a soapbox for the lead and who ensure that there is an underlying comedic quality which brought many belly laughs from the audience. I particularly liked Sisters Mary Patrick (played by little Miss Dynamite Lisa Forster), Mary Lazarus (new girl Lynne Kerr) and Mary Martin of Tours (the irrepressible Megan Robson) but as with all choirs, it's the sum of its parts which provides the true force.
It's not just the girls who shine and have fun in this show, DOS boys do us proud yet again with some stand out performances from the North East's leading men. Julian Cound, as gang boss Curtis, calls on all his acting ability to be menacing and threatening (not easy when you're such a genuinely nice guy in real life), Michael Hirst, star of previous shows as Danny Zucco in Grease and a lobster in Strictly, plays love-struck cop 'Sweaty' Eddie while Curtis's 3 stooges, Joey, TJ and Pablo, ensure that there is always some slapstick comedy sitting just under the surface. To be fair, Ben Connor, Andrew Hamilton and Leighton Taylor are much more than just 3 patsies for Julian to play against, they are all brilliant singers, great actors and have such confidence on stage that they could easily form a breakaway show of their own.
The soundtrack for the stage show doesn't have the well known songs of the original movie, these songs have been specifically written but what that means is there is more of a consistent feel and theme throughout all the numbers; the band, led as always by impresario Michael Trotter, get right into the 70's groove with great funk, soul and disco acting as a juxtaposition to the nuns choral harmonies. The stage, set & costumes too belie any suggestion that this is an amateur production and just goes to show that DOS is, from top to bottom, front to back, professional in all but name. That's why, when some major tours are struggling to put bums on seats, DOS can pack 'em in and then get 'em on their feet dancing and singing.
I could go on naming more and more of the cast and bestowing due praise on them all but rather than take my word for it, why not get some tickets and go and see what is undoubtedly the 'Must See' show of 2014.