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Hillbarn’s ‘Sister Act’ contains some blessings

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Dawn L. Troupe takes control in Hillbarn Theatre’s “Sister Act.” (Courtesy Mark and Tracy Photography)

Given its musical plot points and popular soundtrack, the concept of morphing the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film “Sister Act” to “Sister Act: Live on Stage!” would seem heaven sent.

Instead, the enjoyable musical now on stage at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City has a wholly, if not holy, original score composed by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Shop of Horrors”) with lyrics by Glenn Slater (“School of Rock,” “Galavant”).

Workshopped in San Diego and Atlanta, “Sister Act” opened in London in 2009 and on Broadway in 2011. It became the career-launcher for Patina Miller, who later won a Tony Award for “Pippin” and currently plays Daisy Grant on “Madam Secretary” on CBS.

As entertainment tropes go, sisters with bad habits have long been one of our favorite things. This time it’s lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier as a pseudo-nun on the run, stuck in witness protection in a convent where she becomes an exceedingly unconventional choir mistress.

Donning Goldberg’s wimple is Dawn L. Troupe, an exceptional performer whose unerring comic timing, unflinching introspection and gutsy aria-grade vocals are the highpoint of the show. No watered-down Whoopi, Troupe makes Deloris her own woman, with conflicting priorities buffeted by an obvious conviction that no matter what life throws at her, she is “Fabulous, Baby!”

An equal blessing (and pleasure) is Jim Ambler as “Sweaty” Eddie, whose still-burning high school torch for Deloris cements his determination to protect her in spite of herself. Ambler is a delight as the shlubby, awkward shy-guy who can bust some enchanting dance moves – and costume changes – while angelically singing about his lady love.

For the rest of the company, director Bill Starr hews very closely to screen-version verisimilitude. Beth Anne Wells Viloria (Mother Superior), Melissa Costa (Sister Mary Patrick) and Darlene Batchelder (Sister Mary Lazarus) fully embrace the characters created by Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy and the late Mary Wicks, though Viloria lacks Smith’s dour steel.

Jessica Maxey (Sister Mary Robert) benefits sweetly from a character developed beyond the “Sing out, Sister!” one-trick pony of the
film but still delivers those amazing vocal licks. The remaining Sisters Mary Et Cetera – nine of them – all work the cute-nun shtick very effectively and form a rousing chorus by Deloris.

On the boy side, Sheeraj Ragoobeer, Sam Nachison and Nick Dale are amusing Three Stooges-esque thugs, who make a mighty attempt at Jersey Boys style. Less successful are Robert Sholty (Monsignor O’Hara) and Gary Stanford Jr. (Curtis) in stock performances that are, respectively, over the top and under the radar.

Sister Act
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 28
Tickets: $28 to $48
Contact: (650) 349-6411, www.hillbarntheatre.org

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