Ensemble excellence is the backbone of any successful musical, and the Costa Mesa Playhouse is exhibiting one of the strongest spines imaginable with its production of "Sister Act."
What seems like dozens of dancing nuns, all stepping in unison across the playhouse's limited dimensions, provide a terrific backup to some professional-quality voices in this stage version of the (1992) Whoopi Goldberg movie comedy.
Director David A. Blair and choreographer Tricia Bowman have fashioned a gem in both their specialties. Now if only musical director Stephen Hulsey could be persuaded to lower the volume on the recorded accompaniment which often drowns out the lyrics sung by some very talented voices.
Chief among these is Melissa Montanez as Deloris, a cabaret canary who witnesses a murder and goes on the run from the powerful thug who committed it. Her witness protection program turns out to be a local Catholic church where she dons a habit and tries to fit in with the sisters.
Montanez delivers one of the sharpest performances to be seen on a community theater stage and she matches it with a stunningly well-trained voice as she proceeds to usurp the choir mistress' baton and bring the group into the modern age (or at least the disco-flavored late 1970s).
Naturally, this doesn't sit well with the traditionalist mother superior, commandingly played by Kim Peterson, who has the vocal power to match her steely mage. Her battles of wits (and beliefs) with the newly christened "Sister Mary Clarence" are beautifully projected and her "I Haven't Got a Prayer" solo is among the show's vocal highlights.
The coterie of nuns is a splendid ensemble, but one standout is Samantha Joy Blair as a young postulate who's still unsure of her pending decision and raises her voice in fervent query. Michael Dale Brown strives valiantly to keep the peace since the newly popular choir has proven to be a money magnet for his troubled church.
Another standout is the murderous gangster viciously delivered by Octavius Womack, who moves beyond stereotype to contribute a window-rattling voice. Charles Johnson is dwarfed by comparison in a fine performance as Womack's police lieutenant pursuer.
Bowman's choreographic complexity stirs the comedic pot splendidly as the choir doubles as a chorus line. Their "Raise Your Voice" number even manages to drown out the music on occasion.
"Sister Act" may be a tad dated in its story line, but its musical numbers will have hands clapping and toes tapping in the audience in this terrific revival at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
If You Go
What: "Sister Act"
When: Through May 6; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St.
Information: (949) 650-5269 or costamesaplayhouse.com.