Encinal Takes Play’s Script from Vision to Reality

DJ Marilynn  Members of the Encinal Junior and Senior High School Drama Department strut their stuff during last weekend’s performance of Sister Act.

Encinal Takes Play’s Script from Vision to Reality

 

The Encinal Junior and Senior High School Drama Department is currently performing Sister Act on the stage of the Willie Stargell Gym and Auditorium. This production is an excellent example of the wondrously marvelous things that can happen when a director — in this case Connie Champagne — places confidence in the cast and crew and allows them freedom of expression in the creative process.

A show starts out as a script, becomes a vision and then, opening night, becomes a reality; the students of Encinal were integral to that imaginative process.

If you ever watched the movie version, forget all you know about Sister Act, this show is upbeat, inspirational and over-the-top — you may find your mascara running before the final curtain. Some schools pick ensemble shows for fear that no one can handle a rigorous leading role; not so with Encinal High: they have Zariah Grant to play Deloris Van Cartier and Brandon Lee for the role of Eddie Souther.

Grant is simply stunning on stage; while her character is the epicenter of the story, Zariah is clearly the magnet that holds the entire production together. Sister Act is about transformations — everyone, excepting the criminal element, experiences epiphanies and evolves into a better, more enlightened person — Grant is a most credible catalyst for those changes.

From the first few bars of her opening song — “Take Me to Heaven” — it is obvious that Grant is about to take her audience on a joy ride. Her full body, lustrous singing exudes the confidence, courage and bravado of her rebellious character.

Curtis Jackson, Deloris’s nemesis, is the very personification of malignant evil. Alam Fernandez is alarmingly convincing as Curtis; one might ask, “Should we be looking for Fernandez on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List soon?” Yet he is endearing when he sings the life threatening “When I Find My Baby.” 

The nefarious Curtis is backed up by his incompetent subordinates: Joey (played by Sean Gorham), Pablo (Leo Reyes) and TJ (Joshua Hodge); collectively they make this musical a musical comedy. These three stooges are a hilarious vignette in their own right; if there is ever a spin-off of Sister Act Joey, Pablo and TJ, and their cool, casual and comic choreography, will be the centerpiece of it.

If Grant is indeed the show’s magnet, then Lee is the tent pole of this delightfully entertaining cavalcade of talent. Lee marvelously plays Grant’s secret admirer: Eddie Souther. While Eddie devotes himself to Deloris, she dismisses him as the introverted wretch from her high school days; derisively remembering him as Sweaty Eddie.

While the rest of the cast sings with an abundance of spirit and soul, Lee sings with heart … miles and miles of heart. His rendering of “I Could Be That Guy” is absolutely stunning, alarming in both its technical precision and tonal quality; Lee’s singing has range; he is not afraid to reach for a high note No doubt the entire cast rehearsed assiduously on set, but Lee was a troubadour practicing his song book at home and on the sidewalks of Alameda; his performance was nothing short of arresting.

If anyone accurately represents a stereotype it is Cassie Connolly as the dour Mother Superior: a wet blanket for every occasion and a rainstorm for every parade; she consistently mistakes form for function, nearly destroying the Queen Angles’ convent.

Connolly’s carefully crafted dark suffocating character is the very antithesis of Grant’s effulgent and ebullient Deloris. While Mother Superior demanded the choir to sound like funeral dirges, Grant’s Deloris got the sisters to sound like “Godspell,” Jesus Christ Superstar” or Motown.

Additional bright spots included Lily Conable as Sister Mary Patrick who mellifluously performed no fewer than eight songs; the most memorable being “How I Got the Calling.” If you listen carefully Conable has the temerity to blend a little Eartha Kitt style growling and purring into her singing; showing stylistic courage.

If you watch Sabrina Fernandez as the challenged Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours you will notice her unflagging radiant smile; with chiseled clarity she delivers the pivotal benediction for Doloris’s forced departure from the convent. The show’s upbeat theme reaches a spiritual crescendo in the closing number: “Spread the Love Around.”

Unless you are as hard-boiled as Connolly’s Mother Superior, you can’t help but feel your spirits lifted by the exuberant rousing song and wonderfully executed choreography.

Live music is another added bonus to the show: Galmandakh Unurbaatar on guitar, Abby Hall on tenor saxophone and the rocking Sofia Espinoza on trombone are just of few of Armen Phelps’ prodigies breaking into show business.

As with any successful show, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of those parts include the frenetically energetic stage manager Derek Au, lighting director Susan Hong, Elizabeth Aguilar moving a follow spot that weighs more than she and set designers Mike Dingle and Julia De la Cruz.

The show continues this weekend: 7 p.m., Friday, March 24; 7 p.m., Saturday, March 25 and 2 p.m., Sunday, March 26 at Encinal Junior and Senior High School, 210 Central Ave. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for teens. They are available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2888357

This show is not to be missed. One day you may point to the family TV screen and say, “I saw her, in person. She played Deloris Van Cartier in an Encinal musical!”

 

 

Jeff Smith teaches math at Encinal High School. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.