Kerissa Arrington recognizes that she has some “massive diva shoes” to fill in “Sister Act,” playing the musical incarnation of the old Whoopi Goldberg movie role of a nightclub singer on the run from murderous mobsters by hiding in a convent.
But Arrington, a Houston native making her national touring debut in this 2011 Broadway musical, is thrilled at the opportunity to try.
“I’m not trying to copy Whoopi but I am paying tribute to her. She left a massive imprint on the role. But every actor is different. I’m thinking of her, but I’m bringing my own truth to my performance,” says Arrington, who starred in regional productions as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and Mimi in “Rent.”
“What I love about the role of Deloris is that she is such a confident person. She’s outspoken. She’s not afraid to speak her mind. She’s in a bad situation, but she isn’t a bad person. She’s a little confused about what she really wants out of life, but she isn’t afraid to jump in with both feet,” Arrington says. “And that allows me to be loud and in-your-face – things that I never am in my personal life. It’s a chance to really break out.”
The show, the second offering of the season for Theater League, opens Tuesday for a three-night run in Century II Concert Hall. Starting in London in 2009 and hitting Broadway in 2011 where it received five Tony Award nominations, “Sister Act” features nearly 20 tunes ranging from disco to gospel to soul by multi-Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. They’re the clever guys behind Disney’s stage version of “The Little Mermaid” and the recent TV musical knight-in-shining-armor spoof “Galavant.”
Based on the 1992 comedy, “Sister Act” tells of a nightclub diva named Deloris who witnesses a gangland hit, goes to the police for help and is placed undercover in a convent while waiting to testify. Safe behind the walls, however, Deloris butts heads with the no-nonsense Mother Superior and bristles under rules of modesty, poverty and chastity. But Deloris grows close with some of the shy, naive, even kooky sisters and teaches them to not be afraid to express their own singing voices in the convent choir – no matter what Mother Superior thinks.
For actress Arrington, her favorite moment in the show is the first-act number, “Raise Your Voice,” where Deloris breaks the quiet nuns out of their self-imposed shells.
“It’s so upbeat and fast, that it’s a joy to do every night. It’s become my favorite moment,” Arrington says.
Playing Deloris’ nemesis – at least, at first – is Maggie Clennon Reberg as Mother Superior.
“Mother is very much the matriarch of the convent. She is the alpha nun of the pack. She is used to having her way without question,” says Reberg, a Chicago native whose rich voice is steeped in an opera background, including “Iolanthe,” “Die Fledermaus,” and “The Merry Widow.”
“Then into the convent comes this hurricane named Deloris who is a force as powerful as she is. It takes an equal force to get her to change. The convent has been her whole life, but Deloris makes her begin to question her job, her dedication, even her beliefs. That’s pretty heavy stuff for a musical comedy,” Reberg says.
“Before Deloris, she was inflexible, always thinking ‘my way or the highway.’ Everything was in black and white but Deloris makes her see shades in between. The disruption of her safe little world shakes her to her core,” Reberg says. “She ultimately becomes the most transformed character in the show.”
While opera is Reberg’s specialty, she has also done a lot of regular Broadway, from Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” to the Baroness in “Candide” to – yes – the Reverend Mother in “The Sound of Music.”
“The difference between the two nun roles is like day and night,” Reberg says with a chuckle. “Reverend Mother is like a caring, matronly den mother. Mother Superior is like the Empress, the ruler of the roost. You can guess which is more fun to play.”
Reberg, who is Jewish, says she didn’t have any preconceived notions of how to play Mother Superior. Nor is she patterned after any particular person in her life. Certainly, she’s not drawing from her own personality – at least, not until the end.
“Mother Superior and I are nothing alike for much of the show. She’s so closed off to begin with. But when she finally lets go and begins to enjoy herself, I can relate. I joke with my fellow cast members that I stop acting during the last 10 minutes of the show. That’s me up there.”
If You Go
What: Tony-nominated 2011 Broadway musical based on the Whoopi Goldberg comedy about a nightclub singer hiding from mobsters in a convent; second touring show of season for Theater League
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
Tickets: $85-$35, 316-303-8100 or www.wichitatix.com
Win tickets: Go to facebook.com/wichitaeagle for details.