Follow me behind the scenes of The Co-op Juniors Theatre Company’s Sister Act
- Credit: Archant
The Co-op Juniors Theatre Company pray you enjoy their version of the smash musical Sister Act.
Lucy Allen’s first reaction to making her directing debut with the hit musical was ‘Oh lord’, but she couldn’t resist the challenge.
“I had a couple of days to make my mind up and thought why not? It’s a big ask for the Juniors because the majority of the cast are quite young. It’s a massive challenge.
“I’m my biggest worst critic, so I was very apprehensive but I knew everyone who I had to work with so it wasn’t so daunting. If I was coming into a completely strange place it would have been terrifying but I feel at home here.”
Directing the show is actually a natural step for Lucy, who’s played leads in Les Misérables, We Will Rock You, Oliver! and The Snow Queen.
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She’s been with the award-winning Ipswich group since she was seven, going on to train professionally at London’s Italia Conti Academy. She’s also appeared in shows with the Bury St Edmunds based Irving Stage Company.
“Bringing Sister Act to the New Wolsey Theatre is a real buzz,” says Lucy, who works there front of house. “I’ve performed on that same stage, which has helped our talented cast make the best use of such a unique space.”
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While not helping visitors during the theatre’s open season she’s been having a little wander around the stage.
“I’m thinking ‘right, is this going to work’ just trying to imagine it in front of me.”
Key to making it work was finding somebody to play Deloris van Cartier, the nightclub singer forced to hide out in a convent after witnessing a mob murder; and meek postulant Mary Robert who comes alive thanks to Deloris’ influence.
“We found a great girl who’s playing Delores, Venecia Allen. She’s doing a great job and is going to be fantastic,” says Lucy.
“It’s my first lead role in a musical and I’m having a blast,” said Venecia, taking the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg.
She’s been singing since she was four.
“I used to sing in church, so gospel and choirs were my musical training. As a teenager I sang at jazz concerts, weddings, funerals, you name it. I love music. I’ve always loved performing, but this is my first real stage role, my first proper gig since 2012,” she laughs.
Acting is totally new for Venencia, who finds playing Deloris exciting.
“The mix of comedy, drama and music moves along so fast, I love it. The Co-op Juniors have been really supportive and we laugh so much in rehearsal. Working with Lucy as our director is a big asset as she performs and sings herself and absolutely knows what works. It’s made rehearsals a real collaboration for everyone.”
Joining her onstage is Chris Evans as her lover Curtis, who was last seen at the New Wolsey playing Bill Sykes in Oliver opposite director Lucy as Nancy.
“I seem to have cornered the market in baddies recently,” he laughs.
Peter Ling plays officer Eddie Souther, the Philadelphia beat cop looking after Deloris. In the stage show, the two have history.
“We touch on that a little bit in the second act, they went to school together. Deloris was always this fantastic, outgoing person and Eddie was quite shy, held back... then it switches she needs help and he can step forward as the knight in shining armour when she’s been a crush of his for a long long time. It’s nice to have that context when developing the character.”
His character has another name in Sister Act.
“Sweaty Eddie. I think the plan is to put some sweat patches on there. The likelihood is it will be so hot it will happen anyway,” he laughs.
Peter says the scale of the show is fantastic, with a huge cast and amazing set that boasts some nice features that will surprise for people.
“There are some fantastic numbers where the whole chorus is coming together and you can’t go wrong with a bit of gospel. People will be familiar with the show and its just a nice, new, fresh, uplifting version.”
There aren’t many men in the show.
“No, which is great because of opportunities it provides. You’re a nun, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a chorus part because they each have their own characters and there’s loads of little ensemble parts.”
Lucy says the team saw girl after girl for Sister Mary Robert. One of the only other big roles, they were all great.
“Then Amber Bourne-Williams came in. She’s quite quiet herself then she just sang that one bit in Raise Your Voice and I was like ‘that is it’, she blew us away.”
Amber played Pearl in the Co-op Juniors award-winning Starlight Express, proving roller skates held no fear as she sang and danced in front of special guest Sir Trevor Nunn.
“The costumes were really hot and another worry was trying not to fall over on stage as well,” she laughs.
“This will be my eighth year with the Co-op Juniors. I love performing with my friends and we learn so much from the older cast.
“I love the film and I’ve always been drawn to her character. I can kind of relate to her. I’m quite shy but when I build my confidence up I release myself. I thought I’ll just give it a go and it’s been so much fun. I really like Raise Your Voice.”
Anybody who’s seen either films or the stage show know how important vocal chops are.
“Tight vocals and tight choreography. Obviously as nuns they’re not doing jazz splits all over the stage but there’s a lot of armography,” Lucy laughs. “All that needs to be tight because they’re all dressed the same in habits so when one person does the wrong arm at the wrong time it really shows; timing is imperative.”
Getting all the cast together has been a challenge.
“Everyone has just got so many commitments so it’s been tough... there’s so much for them to learn. We’re through it, it’s going well and we can’t wait, ” says Lucy.
Having the actual full set at their Paul’s Road rehearsal space has been a bonus.
“We’ve got the revolve, which is fairly complex. To be able to rehearse with it before we get to the theatre is massive and everyone has worked really hard to get everything ready for us, we’re really lucky.”
Keen not to give too much away, the set-up means they can switch scenes swiftly and capitalise on some comedy moments.
Musical director Nigel Virley, in charge of the 11-piece orchestra for the show, says the cast has risen to the challenge Sister Act presents.
“It’s an ambitious piece with great music from Alan Menken and vocal challenges for the cast. There’s a lot of harmony, a lot of fiddly bits so getting the timing right is a bit of a challenge.”
He recalls seeing the first film a long time ago so came to the show fresh too. He’s having as much fun as the cast.
“There’s always that initial panic thinking ‘oh God that’s a big show’. I didn’t know it at all. I was the same with Phantom of the Opera which was more of a challenge for me; ‘Is it within our means or within my means?’ even. Once I’d listened to the music I was very enthusiastic. It’s so humorous. It’s a terrific script it really is, there’s a laugh a minute.
“I found this really really enjoyable because I love Menken’s music, he’s a real pro and everything’s just spot on. It’s quality music. Although it’s quite disco and gospelly there’s a lot of jazz chords in there which is my kind of style.”
“Having a young cast makes it doubly difficult so they’ve introduced some older nuns for more depth and maturity of sound. The youngsters have learned it so quickly and they’re amazing at learning harmonies.”
Stephanie Brown has only just stepped off the New Wolsey stage with Ipswich Operatic’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind as I’ve been working on three shows at once - Urinetown with Gallery Players, that was a very off the wall piece but really enjoyable plus Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which was hilarious, great fun, singing, dancing and lot of comedy [now] a bit more mature role in Sister Act.
“She has a couple of really nice songs, one of which is a bit of a hoot, very wordy; but I’m having really good fun. It’s nice to be back with the Co-op Juniors because it’s been quite a few years... I heard they were doing Sister Act I thought ‘ooh I’ve got to go for that’. It’s a lovely story because she’s very stern and totally against the idea to start with and then you see her soften as the show goes on and then they end up best buds - and the music’s fab.”
• Sister Act visits Ipswich’s New Wolsey July 12-15.