Patience is a virtue for Martrina Harris in her kindergarten classroom and in her debut on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage.
Harris, 28, an Iowa City native now living in Cedar Rapids, will be strutting her soul as lounge-singer-turned-sister Deloris Van Cartier in TCR’s production of “Sister Act.” The 2011 Broadway musical springing from the 1992 hit movie opens Friday (9/16) and runs through Oct. 2.
“We’ve not worked with her before,” director Leslie Charipar said of Harris. “She just showed up at auditions and knocked our socks off. She’s dynamite — so good — and I have no idea where she came from, which is one of the great joys of my job.”
A newcomer who moved to Cedar Rapids last year, Harris said she was looking for “a way to get into the community and meet new people. So that brought me to the audition for ‘Sister Act.’ And here I am.”
Harris feels a kindred spirit to Deloris, who is hiding out in the convent after witnessing a murder orchestrated by her gangster boyfriend.
“I love that she’s kind of like me. She’s very sassy, but she has a huge heart,” Harris said. “She loves people, and she just wants that love in return. It might be a little misguided sometimes, but she’s just a loving person.”
During the course of the show, Harris said Deloris learns that “she can’t do it on her own and that she needs people — and it’s OK to care about people that happen to care about you.”
“It’s an underdog story,” Charipar said. “Obviously, (with) this sort of outspoken, pretty outrageous woman put into a conservative situation like a convent, there’s gonna be head-knocking and conflict. Basically, what this story is about, is two different kinds of people getting together and learning from each other, and making each other’s lives better.”
While the stage version is based on the hit movie, in some aspects the two are very different.
The film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, moves from a present-day Reno lounge to a convent in San Francisco, with toe-tapping music that puts new twists on old hymns. The stage musical is set in 1970s Philadelphia, with new music by Academy Award-winning Alan Menken of Disney blockbuster (“Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Tangled”) and “Little Shop of Horrors” fame. Charipar described the sound as “a smorgasbord” of jazzy, R&B sounds, along with musical theater ballads.
The nuns’ music is “all upbeat, gospel sounding — not Catholic, not even Episcopalian,” she said.
After 15 years of parochial education, Charipar is well-versed in the script’s Catholic elements.
“I got it down,” she said with a laugh. “I took six years of Latin, too, so I can help with the pronunciation. I feel like I have the institutional knowledge to do this kind of show.”
She didn’t have to add any convent stereotypes to the characters. “They’re all written into the script. Apparently, nun stereotypes are a universal theme, and they’re all the same,” she said, from strict disciplinarian, to the perky, positive nun, and the “elegant, regal” Mother Superior. “They’re all in there.”.
Nancy Mortimore of rural Swisher is playing the regal Mother Superior. “I just love the show,” she said. She is relishing stepping into a role written for an older actress. “My chorus line days are over.”
A retired language arts teacher, she is a veteran of 23 local “Follies” revues as well as 18 theatrical productions dating back to “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Paramount in 1978.
“I really just wanted to be one of the singing nuns,” she said, like she’s done before in “The Sound of Music” at TCR.
She was surprised by the timely aspects of the script, in showing how people of divergent backgrounds, ethnicities and belief systems can find common ground — “how if there’s love, you can be friends,” she said.
Brett Borden, 29, of Coralville, is the show’s quick-change artist, switching from murder victim to cop, altar boy, cabdriver, newscaster and more. He’s worked with Charipar on creating nuances and characterizations for each role, to make sure their differences come across.
“We worked very hard to flesh out the idiosyncrasies in each character,” he said, “and make it really interesting to watch. ... It’s been a really fun and exciting experience.”
While Catholicism was an important part of Charipar’s youth, she began moving away from it during college, feeling it was “too constricting.” She’s had three previous outings onstage in “Nunsense” and is enjoying another chance to revisit her roots.
“One of the lovely things about doing this show, is that while nuns have a stereotype, their purpose and their message is really a good one,” she said. “I kind of feel like Deloris, in that ‘nuns are crazy — they’re not like me.’ “But what we find out, is that safety and that community of sisters is the thing that Deloris really needs in her life. It’s almost a sorority. It’s a family, and they do for each other and they care for each other in a way that somebody like Deloris or, frankly, somebody like me, would really appreciate, and need and benefit from.
“While there is that sort of idea that we’re making fun of the church and of the rules, and of the nuns and the kind of people they are, really what we find out is that nuns are people, too, and they have some really authentic, positive things to share with the world — and if we just listen for a second, we could benefit from them.”
WHAT: “Sister Act”
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
WHEN: Friday (9/16) to Oct. 8; 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays
TICKETS: $38 adults, $29 students, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org