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Nuns unleash fun at Town Hall Theater

By Julian Caldwell

Nuns cause a ruckus with an atypical amount of attitude in the Clocktower Players’ production of “Sister Act,” the comedic musical based on the 1992 hit film starring Whoopi Goldberg.

The show tells the story of a singer, Deloris Van Cartier, who witnesses a murder and enters the witness protection program. She assumes the identity of Sister Mary Clarence and hides out in a convent attached to a church in danger of closing. Sister Mary Clarence livens up the church — especially the normally reserved nuns

In 2011, after five years in regional theaters, “Sister Act” hit Broadway. For the musical, much of the plot remains the same as the film, but instead of including known pop songs, there’s an original score by Alan Menken, best known as the composer for Disney’s animated films “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Cagle McDonald, artistic director of Clocktower Players, had “Sister Act” on her wish list of musicals to bring to Irvington Town Hall Theater since before the production closed on Broadway in 2012. Because of rights issues, this fall is the first season “Sister Act” is available for community production.

“It’s really a fun show,” McDonald said. “It’s got a great message of these women coming together to help one another and learn from each other.”

Portraying the boisterous Sister Mary Clarence is Rene O’Neal of White Plains, who has been with the Clocktower Players since 2005 and has more than 30 years of acting experience. She welcomed the challenge of portraying the role synonymous with Goldberg.

The character “is nothing like me in real life,” O’Neal said during a recent break in rehearsals at the theater. “She is very sassy, very loud, very in-your-face, and she wants people to know she’s here, and she lights up a room as soon as she walks into it. I, however, prefer to be more on the subdued side, more quiet. I don’t need to be the center of attention, whereas she always wants to be the center of attention, which makes her actually very fun to play.”

“What Whoopi Goldberg did was iconic, there’s no way I could touch that in any way,” O’Neal continued. “I just try to pay homage to the character she created and take that comedy and apply it in a way that works well on my body, as opposed to copying her.”

Sister Mary Clarence’s personality rubs some people the wrong way, but she gains a big fan at the church in Monsignor O’Hara, played by Irvington resident Martin Zeliger.

“He’s a very serious guy about wanting to raise money to save the church because the archdiocese is threatening to shut [it] down,” explained Zeliger, who was a nightclub singer about 50 years ago and helped run a custom upholstery business called Martin Albert Interiors until nine years ago. “When Deloris comes and is hidden in the convent she turns the place on its ear, and all of a sudden the music is brilliant and the nuns are singing and people are coming in off the streets and he becomes Johnny Cool with a microphone, or Barry White, and he starts really getting into it, and thinks he’s really hip.”

Choreographer Josue Jasmin, who has worked on more than 30 adult and children’s productions with Clocktower, “Sister Act” has been one of his favorite movies since it came out 24 years ago.

“I take a lot of my inspiration from that movie and Whoopi Goldberg,” Jasmin said. “It’s fun, it’s comedic. Nuns don’t usually dance, so that brings the joy and the happiness.”

In the film, Jasmin liked how the nuns had their own senses of humor and style, which shined through in their singing and dancing. For the stage, he customized the choreography to fit the character of the gifted cast.

“What makes it stand out is just how fun it is, and all the camaraderie with all the ladies and all the nuns — it’s just like one big party,” O’Neal said. “The talent in here is amazing and the show itself is so much fun to come here and have a good time.” She noted that “the chances of getting this many top performers in Westchester on one stage ever again is very slim because there are not usually many shows where everybody fits in, and this is that perfect culmination to have everybody in it.”

“We had so many people audition,” McDonald added. “All of those women that are in the ensemble — they’ve done leading roles, they’re well known throughout the theater community circuit and they just wanted to do the show. They didn’t care what part they were playing.”

Nellie O’Brien, Mika Nishida, and Miguel Angel Acevedo are a few of the actors in this production who have appeared in other Clocktower musicals as well as national tours; roughly an equal number of people are performing with Clocktower for the first time.

Besides being individually talented, the cast developed a chemistry that’s made for some hilarity while rehearsing the often silly script.

“I know we are entertained by each other,” said George Croom, who directs the production. “If nothing else, we are on stage cracking up at the stupid things we are doing.”

He continued, “Sister Act is not as deep as some of the other shows we’ve done. It’s just heartwarming fun. It’s about coming and having a good time. Sometimes you just want to be entertained, and that’s what this show does, it entertains. To me, what’s funnier than nuns doing hip-hop?”

Amid the comedy, “Sister Act” provides something more for audiences to take away than the ache from nonstop belly laughs.

“Sister Mary Clarence, the character, helps these nuns come out of their shell because they’re so closed in,” Jasmin said. “That’s the message that we want to deliver to the audience — to believe in yourself, it’s OK to be who you are. We all have something special and a light that shines within.”

“Sister Act” is onstage at Irvington Town Hall Theater, 85 Main St. (entrance on North Ferris) tonight (Oct. 14) and tomorrow, and Oct. 21-22 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 23, at 2 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit or call (914) 591-6602.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

October 14, 2016

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Rene O’Neal (center) plays Deloris Van Cartier in the guise of Sister Mary Clarence.