Convents and struggling inner-city churches aren't the only organizations that benefit from a new face and a fresh voice. Case in point: "Sister Act," which opened Friday at Theatre Baton Rouge.
TBR certainly isn't in the same sad shape as the fictional Philadelphia church where lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier goes to hide from her murderous boyfriend. The 71-year-old community theater may be as vibrant and successful as it's ever been.
But that doesn't make Erika Pattman's debut on this stage any less welcome.
Pattman, who plays the least likely nun the Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith has ever seen, brings a dynamic voice and an energetic, infectious presence to this funny and irreverent musical, which Kurt Hauschild and Courtney McKay Murphy co-direct. Jamie Leonard-Brubaker is music director, and Hayley Paige Westphal is choreographer.
Van Cartier is an aspiring singer whose manager and married boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (played by Kirkland Green in another strong debut) is a gangster. When she sees him kill an underling he suspects of disloyalty, Cartier goes to the police, where Lt. Eddie Souther (Tyler Grazaffi) decides the convent is the perfect hideaway while she waits to testify.
Nothing in her background prepares her to pretend to be a nun named Sister Mary Clarence, and nothing has prepared the Mother Superior (Jennifer Johnson) for this sassy, vibrant personality to invade her convent, which is populated by the likes of the overenthusiastic Sister Mary Patrick (Alaina Richard), the cynical Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Pittman) and the shy, self-conscious Sister Mary Roberts (Natalie Overall).
Sister Mary Clarence ends up taking control of the traditional choir, modernizing its sound and breathing a new spirit into her fellow sisters, albeit in ways that exasperate Mother Superior.
Pattman was made for this role. In addition to the singing chops necessary to handle some difficult music, she has a wonderfully expressive face, which adds to the comedy. Theatre Baton Rouge hasn't often offered roles for a funky, soulful black singer-actress.
Pattman's performance might have TBR thinking about finding a few more. Likewise, Green handles both the singing and the menacing persona well.
Johnson and Grezaffi are TBR veterans, and each was terrific — Johnson with her droll delivery of sarcastic laugh lines and her singing, and Grezaffi for some late-'70s disco dance moves that would do John Travolta proud. John Sallinger does well as the go-with-the-flow Monsignor O'Hara.
An especially noteworthy supporting performance comes from Overall, who has a pleasing voice and makes Sister Mary Roberts' growing self-confidence seem real. Her solo, "The Life I Never Led," is a real high point in the show.
There were early sound problems on opening night, when Pattman's words were nearly unintelligible in "Take Me to Heaven" and "Fabulous Baby!" But those got worked out, and the second-act songs — there are 15 — seemed to get better and better.
The 2½-hour show has one 15-minute intermission. It is highly irreverent, but there are no language issues that make it inappropriate for younger audiences.
A Theatre Baton Rouge production
WHEN: Nov. 9-12, 16-19. Performances at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. An additional matinee is at 2 p.m. Nov. 11.
WHERE: Theatre Baton Rouge, 7155 Florida Blvd.
TICKETS/INFO: $30, $19 students. (225) 924-6496 or theatrebr.org