When Shonica Gooden saw “Sister Act” for the first time on Broadway, she never pictured herself one day playing the starring role.
It was 2011 and Gooden, a dance major in college at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University, went to see the stage version of the 1992 movie comedy with her fellow cast members from “Bring It On: The Musical,” in a long-held tradition of free tickets to cast members from other shows.
“I actually didn’t want to get into musical theater. I thought the people were weird and crazy,” said the Atlanta native, who did sing in church choir when she was younger. “I never thought of myself doing the musical theater thing.”
Between “Sister Act” and other shows, Gooden came to be in awe of what she saw on stage and felt a kinship with fellow performers who could sing. And act. And dance.
“I fell in love with the people. The people made me stay,” Gooden recalled. “It was the ability to do all three things. I thought these people were superheroes, that they could do all these things at one time, and at the highest level possible.”
Gooden continued to get Broadway roles, including ensemble parts in “Cinderella” and “Hamilton,” as well as taking over the role of Rumpleteazer in the revival of “Cats.”
The next step in her Broadway dreams – playing the lead role in Music Theatre Wichita’s “Sister Act: The Musical” – comes to fruition beginning with opening night on Wednesday at Century II.
Gooden’s friend and fellow performer from her “Cinderella” days, Robert Hartwell, was an MTW veteran who was changing his career focus from performer to choreographer-director. He saw her in “Hamilton,” where she was a cast member for almost a year, and was mesmerized.
“When you see her on stage, you can’t watch anybody else. I paid like a million dollars to see ‘Hamilton,’ and the only person I saw was her,” said Hartwell, “Sister Act” choreographer. “There’s a lot of spirit and essence to what she does.”
Hartwell was invited to a New York cabaret performance that included Gooden. Uncertain how her vocals had improved over the years, he was left awestruck after a performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
“I had goosebumps all over me,” he said. “I couldn’t separate friendship and art. I was like, ‘Oh, she’s done the work. She’s ready to be doing something big.’”
Hartwell pitched the idea of MTW to Gooden, and primed the pump at MTW for her.
At 28, Gooden said she feels like she’s ready for the role.
“When the opportunity presented itself, I was like, ‘Why not?’ I’ve done the work vocally, acting-wise I’m a sponge – I observe, I watch. I’ve been in shows with some of the most incredible artists."
“These awesome people, “she said, pointing to directors gathered for a media lunch “took a chance on me.”
While there is new talent at center stage, there are veterans behind the scenes, including director Mark Madama, in his 30th consecutive MTW season; and music director Thomas W. Douglas, now in his 19th year.
Fans of the Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name – where a lounge singer hides out from the mob posing as a Catholic nun – will find many similarities in the musical, cast and crew members said. The only differences are the musical is now set in the 1970s, rather than the ‘90s; and that the Goldberg-Gooden character of Deloris van Cartier is younger than the movie.
“Whoopi has said, ‘Deloris is no longer the old broad I played in the movie,” producer Wayne Bryan said. “She’s a young up-and-comer who has everything ahead for her.”
The music, described by Douglas as having a great deal of gospel and disco, is written by Glenn Slater (“Tangled,” “The Little Mermaid,” “School of Rock”), with lyrics by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”).
The MTW “Sister Act” cast also includes Katie Banks-Todd, returning to MTW and playing the Mother Superior; Kolby Kindle, who reprises his touring company role of Deloris’ gangster boyfriend, Curtis; Lawrence Cummings, as the cop, Eddie, and Nichols Saverine returning to MTW as Monsignor O’Hara.
Hartwell said the musical is satisfying for old-school musical and movie fans, while carrying a present-day message.
“There’s a spirit of inclusion in this,” he said. “It’s about people learning to find their own voice, but not to keep it to themselves and to share it with other people. At the end of the show, it’s about a house of worship taking in someone who looks different than them and sounds different than them. It’s how they work together to spread the love around.”
Someone already feeling the love is Gooden, who learned the buzz on Broadway about Music Theatre Wichita is true.
“I heard that was going to happen from people in New York that I worked with before who have been here,” she said. “Everyone has so many amazing things to say about Music Theatre Wichita. Everybody wants to work here, everybody wants to leave their shows and come here, because they feel the spirit.
“I didn’t understand because I’ve never come here. I’ve only been here for two days and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I get it!’”
‘SISTER ACT: THE MUSICAL’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, June 13-14; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 15-16; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, June 16-17; and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 17
Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas
More Information: Show is rated PG. Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes. Children must be at least 5 years old.