Sister Act is currently onstage at the Fulton Theatre through March 26, 2016. This musical is based on the 1992 film of the same name that starred Whoopi Goldberg. Sister Act takes place in Philadelphia and tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a disco diva, who has just witnessed a murder. She is placed in protective custody in a convent, a place the police are positive Deloris will not be found. However, during her time at the convent, Deloris clashes with Mother Superior. These two strong women, have very different lifestyles, but eventually Mother Superior and Deloris both rediscover their own voice.
The production of Sister Act at the Fulton is a show full of powerful performances and a lot of soul. It is a show that will have the audiences tapping their feet with the music and leaving the theatre with a smile. The thing that this show does well is that it takes the basic story from the 1992 movie and adds a depth of humanity to entertain audiences from the beginning number to the end of the show.
I had the opportunity to speak with April Woodall who plays Mother Superior in the Fulton’s production. Woodall is no stranger to the Fulton’s stage, she played Mother Abbess in the Fulton’s The Sound of Music in 2010. Also, Woodall has been in Sister Act previously, this past summer she played the role of Sister Mary Lazarus in Maine State Music Theatre’s production. Woodall spoke with me about playing Mother Superior as well as the research she did to prepare for this role. In addition, we spoke about why audiences should come out and see this show and how she gained an interest in performing.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a little about the musical Sister Act?
April Woodall: It is such a wonderful show. The writers have set up such great characters that are complex. You can think there are good characters and bad characters, but there is a lot of grey areas in how these characters react to situations. In my role, Mother Superior, she believes she is doing all the right things for all the right reasons, but in other people’s eyes they don’t always view her decisions as the right thing for the situation. She gets a lot of chances to talk directly to God, and she really feels as if she is doing his bidding and what God would want done. She also eventually learns that her personal ideas have been interfering with her understanding of God’s will. In the end the very final thing she says is “All things being even, here’s what I believe in – nothing matters more than love.” And that is a really important final message. Deloris learns this as well during the course of the show. When we first meet Deloris she is obviously sacrificing some of her own personal respect in order to get the things she needs in life, which is to get ahead and to get out of her not so privileged background. What she discovers along the way is that love can be found in the most unusual places. She looks for it in powerful men, but she finds it in the humblest of women’s communities, a convent where people are not out in the public at all. That is where she discovers love and opens up her own heart, and realizes what it means to be part of a family and dedicated to a family.
One thing I have been thinking about that I find interesting is that the Fulton just did Legally Blonde and there is a similar theme. As I watched Legally Blonde when I was in rehearsals here for Sister Act, I thought the sisters in this musical are a sorority too, like in Legally Blonde – once a sister, always a sister. We stand up for our sisters in Sister Act. I think this is an interesting parallel and I love that the Fulton have these two shows back to back because of the similar theme.
Kelli Curtin: Why should audiences come out and see Sister Act?
April Woodall: The show is entertaining and the music is a lot of fun. The music was written originally for the show. The composers and writers have written the music so the musical themes return. The second time you hear the song in the show people find the song familiar and start to tap their feet. The show also has a good message about finding the good in others. A lot of people know and love the film with Whoopi Goldberg, which has a similar message about not judging a book by its cover.
Members of the audience will leave with a new respect for their own dedication to goodness in the world, and helping people. People leave the theatre thinking more about the purpose of religion in their lives, and how rigid or open it might be or if it is a little of both. I think people leave here thinking there is good is everybody. In addition, it will help people see the good in others even if that is not what their façades present. In today’s society we walk down the street and we immediately judge others. However, when people start to open up and allow themselves to get to know someone and know the motivations for how someone looks or acts, then you can touch others on a very human level, which allows us to grow as human beings. This is definitely a lesson Sister Act teaches.
Kelli Curtin: Please tell me a little about your character, Mother Superior.
April Woodall: Every actor makes a backstory for how their character got to this place. To play Mother Superior I always start with the text and the music. In reading the text I realized that Mother Superior talks a lot to God. I also did a lot of research. When I did The Sound of Music at the Fulton our Maria, Catherine Walker, grew up on a property that belonged to some cloistered nuns here in Lancaster County. She arranged for some of us in the show to go meet them. They met us through the grate, and they hugged us through the grate. Then we sang some songs from the show for them because they would not be able to come see us in A Sound of Music because they are cloistered. We had the opportunity to ask the nuns some questions about how they knew they wanted to be a cloistered nun, and some of the stories were just mind blowing. In this meeting I noticed there were about fifteen nuns that came to meet us on their side of the grate, and when they came in they sat in various chairs. I noticed that they placed a chair in the very center, and nobody sat in this chair. The very last person to enter sat in that chair, and she was the Mother Superior. She is the one who had to make decisions for all of them, she is elected to that position by all the other nuns as the person they feel will be able to handle communication with the outside world and make serious decisions. The nuns in this cloister dedicate their whole life to prayer – they pray hours – their whole life is prayer, eat, prayer, eat – that is what they do.
So, to come to this role of Mother Superior in Sister Act, I have to recognize that all these women put their trust in me to make decisions that affect our lives together. In this particular situation we serve at the allowance and grace of the Monseigneur of the church. Something I learned through research is that convents and nuns are not necessarily protected by the church, monks are, but the Sisters are not. In the situation in Sister Act, this particular church is failing. The fact that if this church goes by the wayside, I as Mother Superior have no place to put these sisters. This comes out in the musical when the Monseigneur says, “This church will be no more,” and my first question is, “What happens to the Sisters?” I ask this instead of asking what happens to the relics or anything else surrounding the church because the sisters are my priority.
My take on Mother Superior is that she grew up in a very patriarchal household. Her father was probably dominant and I think her mother was a wayward woman at some point in her life, and that is why Deloris coming in frightens Mother Superior so much. When Marc Robin asked me to do the role, I asked him for what his basic distillation of what he wanted to see from her, and he told me he wanted it to be a battle for her very moral soul. That gave me a lot to think about preparing to play this role.
Kelli Curtin: The songs you perform, “Here within These Walls” and “Haven’t Got a Prayer” are beautiful and emotionally moving. In order to affect the audience with these songs do you find it necessary to relate to characteristics of Mother Superior?
April Woodall: The song “Here within These Walls” is pretty straightforward. Mother Superior is setting up for the audience and through trying to explain to Deloris that outside the walls everything is polluted, and inside everything is pure. The second song though, “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” the audience at this point in the show have been watching Mother Superior talk to God a lot. A lot of the actual words in this song are humorous, but in the same token she is going beyond the humor to a crisis of confidence. Under Marc’s direction he advised me to play it straight and go for it, even though the words to the song are full of humor. I think the audience can really identify with this song because we all end up in that moment of crisis when we would love to laugh at what is happening, and someday we will look back and laugh at this moment, but right now it is really a desperate cry for help. I really love playing this moment in the show. It really is a crisis of confidence because Mother Superior tries to humor herself, and in this one moment she becomes desperate because she is frustrated at the situation around her and she feels she has dedicated her whole life to prayer and is not being answered.
Kelli Curtin: Sister Act is a crowd pleasing show, it is high energy, and people seem to leave the theatre with a smile. Is that fulfilling to see as a performer?
April Woodall: Definitely. Every audience is so different, but as a performer we do get our energy from the audience. Getting a reaction from the people in the audience is important because it really is fulfilling. It is wonderful when we can hear audiences laughing or reacting and know they are all for certain characters. In this show the performances are so well done that people are reacting to both the good guy and the bad guy. In live theatre it is so important when people react because they are responding in the moment and participating with others in the audience. The audience is part of the whole presentation, we are all in the same room reacting to what is occurring onstage. The audiences at the Fulton are awesome, and they are there to support and participating in live theatre.
Kelli Curtin: How did you first gain an interest in performing?
April Woodall: I remember when I was little, like four or five, standing in front of the mirror imitating opera singers when I was growing up in Texas even though I had never seen an opera singer. My parents would get tickets every year to the Texas State Fair, which is in Dallas and there always was a tour of a Broadway show. When I was six they had tickets, but could not get a babysitter, so they took me with them and I had a chance to see Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. I walked out of there singing every song from the show, even though it horrified my parents because Man of La Mancha is not a kid’s show. I was hooked on musical theatre from that moment.
When I was a teenager we moved to the East Coast, which was my saving grace. In high school I got asthma and was not allowed to play basketball on the basketball team, so I went out for the chorus and ended up in Li’l Abner. I stayed in the music program and ended up playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady my senior year. Then I started to become attracted to opera even though I did not know much about opera. I ended up in college being tracked to opera and then moved to Philadelphia to study opera at the Curtis Institute under Boris Goldovsky. I spent two years studying with him and my voice teacher the third year was Todd Duncan who was the first Porgy in Porgy and Bess. He shared so many stories with me about working with the Gershwins, working on Broadway, and touring Europe as a black man. He said to me, “I know many of those people came to see a black man in a tuxedo, but they left knowing I was an artist.” He was a powerful man and influential in my career.
Kelli Curtin: Why, in your opinion, is live theatre important?
April Woodall: It is like going to church. You sit in your chair and you watch stories onstage. Audiences identify with part of the story and ask how did they deal with that situation? It helps people grow as human beings, and it is essential for live theatre to play out people’s struggles and challenges onstage. Live theatre has always been important through the very beginning of time to show people how they can learn and grow. For example, “Passion Plays” showed audiences how to become a better person and a more compassionate person.
April Woodall can be seen as Mother Superior in Sister Act at the Fulton Theatre. For more information and tickets visit their website at www.thefulton.org or call the box office at 717-397-7425.
Photos Courtesy of the Fulton Theatre – Photo Credit: Shift Focus Photography
Kelli Curtin is editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online site broadwayworld.com. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.