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Nuns we love

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The cast of the touring company of 'Sister Act.' Joan Marcus
The cast of the touring company of 'Sister Act.' Joan Marcus
Hollis Resnik and Ta'Rea Campell in 'Sister Act.' Credit: Joan Marcus
The cast of the touring company of 'Sister Act.' Joan Marcus
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt.” Miramax
Kimberly Richards reprises the role of Sister in City Theatre's production of 'Sister's Christmas Catechism.' Credit: City Theatre
Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine starred in 'Three Mules for Sister Sara.' Universal Pictures
Eric Idle (left) and Robbie Coltrane disguised themselves as nuns in 'Nuns on the Run.' Handmade Films
© 1965 Argyle Enterprises and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Julie Andrews starred in the film version of 'The Sound of Music' (1965). Twentieth Century Fox
Audrey Hepburn played Sister Luke in “The Nun’s Story” (1959). Warner Brothers
Tracy Nelson's Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski was the faithful sidekick in sleuth with Tom Bosley's Father Dowling in the 'Father Dowling Mysteries' on TV. Viacom
Susan Sarandon was Sister Helen Prejean in the fact-based story 'Dead Man Walking.' Working Title Films
Kathleen Freeman played Sister Mary Stigmata (a.k.a. The Penguin) in 'The Blues Brothers.' Universal Pictures
Sally Field was 'The Flying Nun.' Screen Gems
Christy Rodibaugh and Leah Hillgrove in a 2011 production of 'Nunsense.' Credit: Matt Polk
Point Park University and Woodland Hills High School alumnus E. Clayton Cornelious plays Eddie Souther in the national touring production of 'Sister Act.' Credit: Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

What goes on beneath the habit and within convent walls has long fascinated fans of literature and drama.

In the 14th century, Chaucer included two nuns among his band of story-telling pilgrims in “The Canterbury Tales.”

Seven centuries later, they remain a subject of fascination and fantasy as TV audiences tune in to see what's going on with Sister Jude and Sister Mary Eunice in the recently concluded dark and often disturbing FX series “American Horror Story: Asylum.”

“Sister Act” gives us a more upbeat, fun and fanciful look inside a convent when the musical plays Tuesday through Feb. 10 as a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

Set inside a South Philadelphia convent in the 1970s, the story focuses on a lounge singer named Deloris Van Cartier who disrupts the nuns' orderly life when she dons a habit to hide out from a hit man.

Deloris' worldly ways and outspoken attitudes clash with the convent's rules and a disapproving Mother Superior.

But Deloris' not-entirely-divine intervention also brings a much-welcome lift to the nuns in the choir.

Those familiar with the 1992 movie of the same name and its sequel “Sister Act II: Back in the Habit” will recall those stories were set in Las Vegas in the '90s with Whoopi Goldberg playing Deloris.

In adapting the movie for the Broadway stage, director Jerry Zaks and the show's creative team moved the musical to South Philadelphia and the '70s and gave it a disco beat.

“Philadelphia was home to disco,” Brent Allan Huffman says. “The music of the '70s has such different styles. It's so rich.”

Huffman, a Blairsville native, serves as the music director and conductor for “Sister Act.”

He's particularly eager to let people know that, despite its convent setting, there's only a touch of gospel music in the musical's original Alan Menken-Glenn Slater score

“I tire of hearing that it's gospel,” Huffman says. “It's disco, R&B, and some traditional musical theater stuff. … If you listen to the orchestra closely you might hear ‘The Hustle' or parts from ‘Celebration.' ”

Among Huffman's favorite moments in the show is “Raise Your Voice,” which comes near the end of the first act as Deloris coaches the nuns in new ways to praise the Lord with music.

“It's intended to show their progression — starting meek, singing without soul,” Huffman says. “What Deloris gives them is the inspiration to sing out loud. By the end, it's so uplifting and exuberant.”

For E. Clayton Cornelious, who plays Deloris' protector, Eddie Souther, his song, “I Could Be That Guy” is the high point of his evening.

He plays the cop who arranged for Deloris to hide out in the convent. He also is her nerdy, but loyal, protector who has admired her since they were friends in high school.

It's Cornelious' first stage appearance in Pittsburgh since he left town in 1992 after studying at Point Park University.

He has appeared in seven national touring shows, including “Hairspray,” “The Lion King,” “A Chorus Line” and “The Wiz,” but always seemed to move on to other projects before the shows arrived in his hometown.

He knew he wanted to play Eddie Souther from the moment he saw the musical on Broadway.

“It's a dream role and a great song,” says Souther, a former Rankin resident and a graduate of Woodland Hills. “It's the perfect role for me. ... I have that musical-theater nerd guy inside me. I know how to connect with this guy and where he's coming from,” Cornelious says. “I'm trying to take care of her, and she's pushy and bossy. I'm caring for her and, by the end of the show, she realizes that.”

There's also a splashy finale that rewards those in the audience who stay through the curtain call, Huffman says.

“The end of the show is eye-popping,” Huffman promises. “If you are in a bad mood when you go, you don't leave in a bad mood.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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