It’s another Sunday in church, which means another day for the nuns to rip it up.
The pews fill in front and around them as the musicians start up the beat. The nuns burst into song and dance, habits billowing. The smiles on their faces are radiant.
And then, just for a moment, they leave the ground and take flight.
“This is a bigger show,” said Salvatore DeLucia, drama teacher at Wilbur Cross high school. “There have been wonderful and terrifying lessons to learn — in a good way. It’s been a challenge right out of the gate, but everyone has risen to that challenge.”
DeLucia was comparing Sister Act — this year’s production of Wilbur Cross’s Lights Up Drama Club, running at Wilbur Cross High School this Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to last year’s production, Is There Life After High School?, which marked DeLucia’s first at the helm of a Wilbur Cross drama.
“Last year I was terrified — I can say that now — but I trusted the process and built an incredible team of people around me,” DeLucia said. That team returned for Sister Act. DeLucia, who took charge of set design, co-directed the production with Heather Bazinet, who also took charge of costumes. Matt Durland served as music director and Jennifer Kaye as choreographer and lighting designer. Samara Vaiuso was scenic artist and designed the playbill.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that having a creative team is your number one step to success. You defer to their expertise.” Yet “at the end of the day, we’re all following the same vision — we all believe in these amazing kids and their talent.”
After Is There Life After High School?, the students in the club wanted to do another musical. They also wanted to go bigger.
The team decided on Sister Act, the musical based on the 1992 movie that tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a club singer who witnesses a gangster murder and needs to go into hiding for her protection before the trial. The police have the idea to hide her in a convent. The convent and its church are both in danger of closing due to low attendance at Mass. There are, as the Mother Superior of the convent says, “no words” to describe the hellacious quality of the church’s choir. Despite being in hiding, Deloris thinks maybe there’s something she can do about that, and soon has the nuns singing and dancing like true professionals. People start to take notice. But that presents a problem: Can Deloris raise the convent’s and the church’s profile while still staying in hiding herself?
The Lights Up team chose Sister Act for its proven track record on Broadway and because “we had a predominantly female cast,” DeLucia said. “We knew that this was the best show for the particular group we had.” It was “hands down everyone’s choice.”
But a bigger production meant another level of complexity. Is There Life After High School? had one set change and one costume change, and that was during intermission, Sister Act was a more complicated show — a “spectacle,” DeLucia said — with multiple set pieces to create multiple locations, from a church to a convent to two different clubs to the inside of a police station. The number of musicians in the pit orchestra grew from six to 12. “I was frightened by the scope of it,” DeLucia said, “but I was eager to learn the lessons it was going to teach me.”
Besides, “between our crew and actors, we have some of the most talented, good-natured, and driven students you’re going to find,” he added.
DeLucia isn’t exaggerating. Brianna Chance, who plays Deloris, mentions in the program that “this is my first live performance.” That is hard to believe, as Chance commands the stage from the second she arrives. She plays Deloris with confident exuberance as a woman whose talent — and, ultimately, desire to do good — can’t be contained, and she has the singing voice to match.
She’s matched, however, by Melissa Cisija, who has already performed in Macbeth and Into the Woods, among other productions. As Deloris’s nemesis Mother Superior, she knows how to garner laughs from her indignation at Deloris’s behavior in the convent and her sanctimony toward the singer’s freewheeling spirit. Yet she also makes the character human enough to make the audience believe the nun’s change of heart later, and willingness to put herself on the line in the end.
Tyheed Scurry, meanwhile, shows his experience as an actor by investing a smaller role — that of murderous gangster Curtis — with a lot of force. The time he spends on stage, he fills with equal parts comedy and menace. When the moment calls for it, he’s threatening enough to make you wonder whether things really will turn out all right in the end.
But in the end, and beginning, and middle, Sister Act is really an ensemble piece, in which just about every character gets a chance to shine — whether it’s Brandon Oliveras as a police officer who finds his mojo, Seth Morrison as a monsignor who truly finds Jesus, Mari Caldwell as a nun who finds the funk, or Leila Rodriguez as a rule-following sister who learns when to stand up and break them, too. Emanuel Gonzalez, Erian Diaz, and Gian Melendez excel as hilariously horndog henchmen who get put in their places. As DeLucia said, Wilbur Cross shows itself as a high school with a deep reservoir of talent and determination, and all that hard work is precisely what makes Sister Act so fun.
“We want people to walk out of this auditorium singing ‘Fabulous Baby’ and not be able to get it out of their head for three days,” DeLucia said. You don’t need much faith to believe that’ll happen.
Sister Act runs at Wilbur Cross High School, 181 Mitchell Drive, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and more information, click here.