Some shows are natural tear-jerkers. "Sister Act" is not one of those. And yet, some of the nuns in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres musical couldn't help getting dewy-eyed when they gathered for a between-shows snack on a recent afternoon.
"Sometimes you're doing a show and it just feels like a diversion," said actor Norah Long, who plays Mother Superior. "And 'Sister Act' is that, too. But it's also the exact opposite.
"After every performance, I feel like I've been to church. It preaches love and grace and acceptance. It's about community and collaboration and inclusion. What a wonderful thing, to be able to spend our time in that message."
Long wasn't the only actor to have moist eyes as she joined castmates Seri Johnson, Molly Sue McDonald, Therese Walth, Britta Ollmann and Regina Marie Williams to chat over a platter of spicy chicken wings about the emotional bonds they've formed from the time the musical first became a smash two years ago to its recent high-spirited revival.
The sisters — a dozen in all — share one huge dressing room.
"On my side of the dressing room, there are two weddings being planned," said Ollmann, who plays novice Sister Mary Robert and is getting married herself soon. "On the other side, someone is dealing with some serious health news for her kid."
"This really is a beautiful, supportive sisterhood," said McDonald, a veteran who has performed at theaters all over town. "It's really great to come here when you're in a bad space, because by the end of the show, you've gotten through it."
Walth chimed in: "If I need somebody to talk to about how frustrated I am right now, Molly is good at listening to me. And if I need someone to calm me down, I can go to Seri. And you can have a joke with almost everybody."
Flowers in the urinal
Their dressing room used to be used by male actors. Larger than the space formerly occupied by the "sisters," it reflects a longtime disparity at Chanhassen, where shows often have had more male roles than female.
Not this time. And the women have added some gentle touches — including a bouquet of flowers in the urinal.
"It's family here, and it's like being in any large family situation where you're spending a lot of intimate time together," Long said. "There's something odd about our industry, where we come to work and take our clothes off in front of each other. On any given day, just like family, you have to navigate where people are. But it also helps to forge emotional and intimate connections."
Walth, who plays the preternaturally sunny Sister Mary Patrick, said she was happy to get a part in the comic Alan Menken musical about a nunnery that harbors a singer hiding out from her murderous boyfriend. But she hadn't realized that the show was more than an entertaining diversion.
"It's definitely that," Johnson shot back.
"But it's also deep," Walth continued. "There are moments that catch you by surprise and you're suddenly emotional. These sisters — my sisters — are willing to sacrifice for this woman, to give their lives for this friend they've made. It's just powerful."
Worlds coming together
In the show, a profane black singer, Deloris Van Cartier (Williams) punctures the cloistered world of the idealistic white nuns, who have taken vows to be in the world but not of it.
When we first see them singing, they sound like a swarm of mosquitoes. Deloris helps them to harmonize. They, in turn, help her get in touch with the grace she had as a Catholic schoolgirl.
Ultimately, "Sister Act" is about worlds coming together.
"There's a lot of silliness and goofiness, but also a punch of reality," said Walth. "Sometimes little things happen, and you laugh. But you realize it's enriching."
Williams nodded amen to that.
"Whenever there's discord about something, it's because there's fear that you're taking something away, or changing it," she said. "In this show, everyone's at first very fearful about each other. But in the end, everybody's enriched. It's not just about someone else or these characters. It's also us, as actors."
It's a stretch to say that the story line has an offstage parallel. The theater world certainly reflects some of the social ills present in the culture at large, including monochromatic cliques of friends, but many in the cast of "Sister Act" — which includes several other performers of color — knew each other from previous shows, and obviously they are more worldly than the nuns. Still, there are elements of intersection, they all agreed.
"My little inner monologue in the big scene at the end, when our lives are in danger, is that [Deloris], who I've been thinking of as so different from us, just did the exact thing I would teach any of my sisters to do," said Long.
"Regina and I talked about that. There's something so nice about it, where we get to the point where we take each other's perspectives and lines. I'm the one who says, 'I'm the song that we play.' And she says — "
" 'I'm the prayer that we pray,' " said Williams.
Just like sisters in real life: They complete each other's sentences.