Summer Stock’s “Sister Act” is a stunning display of fresh young talent

Some of my favorite productions over my years of reviewing have come from the humble stages of Summer Stock Austin. Those in the know surely have fond memories of their productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd, or Legally Blonde, or even their legendary joint-production of Chess, if you were lucky enough to attend. Though the loss of Michael McKelvey hit the company hard, Summer Stock is still one of the highlights of my year, and this continues with their latest, “Sister Act”. I will be the first to say, “Sister Act” is far from my favorite musical, as the numbers don’t have the X-Factor of some of it contemporaries, and it’ss never funny enough nor deep enough to strike either side of the “comedy/drama” coin in any memorable way. That said, what Summer Stock, and director Daniel Adams, bring to the table is a group of talented young people on both sides of the desk, from cast to crew, each with a passion to create the best performance they can in just two weeks. It’s always staggering to behold just what they’re able to create with such a meager budget and tight time constraints, and despite technical issues, they’ve pulled out an soulful, solid production of this Broadway staple.

“Sister Act”, based on the hit film of the same name, follows Deloris, a singer turned moll turned informant, who, after running afoul of her violent gangster boyfriend, goes into hiding in the most unconventional place imaginable: a convent. This leads to some growing pains, as the larger-than-life Deloris must come to terms with her new staid, hallowed home, but when she’s put in charge of the convent’s choir, she proves that some lights shine much too brightly to be hidden under a bushel. Forgoing much of the joyful noise of the original film for somewhat lackluster songs by Alan Menken and Glen Slater, which don’t stand out as either’s best work, the musical still holds its own thanks to a solid premise and some whacky hijinks.

From the moment she arrives on stage, it’s obvious that Micaela Lamas is a star. She brings a sassy, soulful energy to the role of Deloris, reminiscent of Lizzo or comedian Nicole Byer, delighting with refreshing vocal chops and comedic timing in equal measure. She makes each of her numbers look easy, injecting them with an exhilarating exuberance that is infectious to behold, even if the songs themselves don’t shine quite as brightly. Even in the most ho-hum of numbers, Lamas is able to inject her own brand of vivacity into the proceedings, keeping the audience rapt and the action moving. She has the entire musical resting on her shoulders, and she attacks it with such aplomb that she makes it seems like the easiest thing in the world.

One of the true joys of attending Summer Stock each year is discovering talent on the rise. Much like the character she portrays, when first meet Maryanna Tollemache as Sister Mary Robert, she’s quiet and meek, mostly going ignored, but the moment she hits her first belt, you’ll be falling out of your chair. Tollemache’s instrument contains both strength and clarity, and even with a faulty mic she still blasts open the doors with her power. When she finally gets a chance to sing a song of her own, she demands our attention, injecting real pathos while keeping her voice clear and solid. She doesn’t slack in the acting department either, as she’s able to play both modest and timid, as well as cool and rebellious, taking on both with an admirable flair. She’s an actress to keep one’s eyes on, and as only a senior in high school, there’s no telling the heights she’ll hit in the years to come.

I had my reservations when Abby Holtfort first appeared as the Mother Superior. Though I had seen her give fine performances in the past, there is always a concern in young casts in how older characters would be handled, as taking on someone of both such an advanced age, with that much gravitas, can often be a challenge for young performers. Holtfort put all my doubts to rest, however, as the actress carries herself with a grace and solemnity that instantly endears her to the audience, especially when placed against the larger-the-life persona that Lamas exudes. She makes for the perfect foil, and watching these two leads interact is one of the true highlights of the piece.

Of course, I can’t leave here without mentioning the stellar work done by David Pena, Tristan Tierney, and and Jaiden Collier. The three portray a trio of bumbling gangsters, and they steal nearly every scene they’re in. They provide a pleasant diversion from the convent antics, and create some of the best set pieces in the production. In particular, Tierney proves himself to be a name to remember, as the actor brings in the charisma that made him such a hit in “How to Succeed in Business” to give his mobster a smarmy, greasy charm that’s undeniably hilarious.

“Sister Act” is far from the best musical that’s graced Summer Stock stages, but there’s no denying that the level of talent on display is colossal. From the smallest bit player to the play’s star, each brings wit, zeal, and an undeniable passion to their performance that’s hard not to love, which elevates even the most mediocre of pieces. I’ve never come away disappointed in a Summer Stock Austin production, and that certainly won’t start now, so be sure to check out these young performers giving it their all.

Photo courtesy of Summer Stock Austin .

‘Addams Family’ is a polished, if corny, musical comedy

Over its decade-spanning existence, Summer Stock Austin has become a city institution, creating some of the most memorial music moments in Austin theatre history, and it has given birth to many skilled performers in Austin, and throughout the country. It’s a fantastic showcase for young performers, giving them a chance to perform for large audiences without paying a dime, and in the process enriching the Austin theatre experience. With the departure of their previous director, Michael McKelvey, there was some concern that the quality of their productions might dip, but with their latest production, the campy, creepy, corny The Addams Family: The Musical, one can see the organization is still in good hands.

The Addams Family follows the Addams as they prepare to meet Wednesday’s new boyfriend, whom the young woman met while hunting birds in Central Park. Of course, this revelation sits poorly with her family, particular her mother, and this feeling is only exacerbated when the boy’s family sends a ghastly gift: flowers! Secrets are kept, lies are told, loves are gained and lost, and Gomez is put in the precarious situation of being stuck between letting down his daughter and lying to his wife, which are, as one musical number states “Two Things He Could Never Do”. This explodes in a riotous night of music and mayhem that only the Addams could provide, as old school meets ghoul school in a beautifully chaotic way.

Coming into Addams Family is like being reintroduced to old friends, but know that these characters share more in common with their original comic strip counterparts than their film versions.  Fester and Grandma are goofier than in the TV and film versions, and everything, on the whole, is raised to a higher camp level. Unfortunately, Gomez also loses much of his suaveness, here replaced by a level of cheesy comedy that while refreshing, takes him all the further from the dashing figure Raul Julia presents in the films. This all makes things much funnier, on the whole, but can be disorienting for those who are only familiar with the Addams Family films.

The true showstopper here is Mariel Ardila as Morticia. Though she turned heads last year in Summer Stock’s Footloose, her turn as the sultry yet sassy matriarch of the Addams clan is nothing short of star-making. Not only does she cut a fine figure in the gorgeous, if incredibly revealing, costumes by Rachel Koske, she proves more than a pretty face with a stern and polished affect that you can’t help but admire. Her voice is one of the best in the cast, and there are few other performers that slip so easily into Ginger Morris’s complex choreography. Despite being many years his senior, she forms a fast chemistry with Benjamin Roberts’ Gomez, and the couple’s playful banter is one of the play’s highlights. There’s a bright future ahead for this college Junior, and one can only hope she finds her way back to Austin stages in the near future.

One of the major issues with Addams Family the Musical is just how corny it is, and it takes a true comedic talent to cut through such heavy layers of cheese. Benjamin Roberts is one such performer. While still in high school, the actor proves to have better timing than many working comedians, and brightens every scene he’s in. He still falls prey to just how lame the jokes become in some stages, but he tries to sell the material as best he can, and never loses his thick Spanish accent.

Summer Stock Austin has once again kicked off its season with a rollicking crowd-favorite, a corny, yet humorous, comedy that serves as a talent show for a handful of skilled performers. It may not have the flash or polish of some of Summer Stock’s best, like Sweeney Todd, Legally Blonde, or Little Shop of Horrors, but Addams Family: The Musical is still a fun, sweet, and energetic take on these classic characters, given a fine production by these talented young actors.

The Addams Family: The Musical is playing at the Long Center’s Rollins Stage through August 13th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Summer Stock Austin’s site at summerstockaustin.org.

Photo courtesy of Summer Stock Austin