Rarely does a school play in Colombo live up to the best professional standards known to local English language theatre. The Mohamed and Nadira Adamaly directed Sister Act 2 did exactly that on three sell-out nights last week (September 20 to 22) with over one hundred schoolgirls, many of them performing in public for the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

What a reservoir of talent!

Ladies’ College production of an adaptation of Sister Act 2

Rarely does a school play in Colombo live up to the best professional standards known to local English language theatre. The Mohamed and Nadira Adamaly directed Sister Act 2 did exactly that on three sell-out nights last week (September 20 to 22) with over one hundred schoolgirls, many of them performing in public for the first time.

On a high: Chantal Hatch (left) as Deloris Van Cartier- Sister Mary Clarence and (right) Achera Ratnavale as Mother Superior

The strength of this production had been derived from the reservoir of choral talent of the school, and some of the best moments in the play were the dominant stage presence and vocal ability of Achera Ratnavale as Mother Superior. 
The central “Whoopi Goldberg” role was played by Chantal Hatch as Deloris Van Cartier. She unfolded this complex character of a woman of the real world of Las Vegas (disguised as Sister Mary Clarence for a cause she believed in), with absolute control. The moments of conflict her dual character demanded were borne with a clear understanding of that portrayal.

As audiences were enthralled by the vocal rendering of the competing choirs within the play, the unfolding drama of teenagers struggling to define the meaning of their existence provided a most stimulating theatrical experience. 
Shevonne Mendis as Rita Watson (whose father had died as a failure in the local music scene), and the supporting role of Atarah Ratnavale as Mrs. Watson (her part time hair dresser mother) who believes that music does not put “bread on the table”, held the play together. Though their theme role of the mother-daughter conflict was relatively less prominent in the greater scheme of things, the competent rendering of their roles gripped the conscience of the audience.

The play unfolded as a story of the search for self-esteem by a music class of unruly and rude teenagers. It was based on the life of Crenshaw High School choir instructor Iris Stevenson, which starred Whoopi Goldberg in a famous 1992 film. 
As a frightened young woman Deloris Van Cartier had sought refuge in a convent fleeing her criminal lover. Later she becomes a celebrated Las Vegas lounge singer. She returns to settle a debt to the nuns who once protected her and are now running her old school, St. Francis High School in San Francisco faced with closure. During her days in hiding she had transformed the nuns into an inspiring choir.

This production which demands complex and quick scene changes was achieved by the innovative use of a simple set made to look elaborate and entertaining by the choreography of Srija Nair, music direction by Neranjan de Silva and Christopher Prins and lighting by Michael Holsinger. 

The use of symbolism with the dancing girls created the prevailing dominant atmosphere of the sleazy world of Las Vegas and the material world outside the cloisters of a Catholic nunnery, in which the teenagers struggled “ to be somebody and to go somewhere”. The directors had them make maximum of this aspect to incorporate the dancing girls to change the set and set the scene. It was an object lesson in what little it needs to take a theatrical production to creative heights, without elaborate stage technology.

Chantal Hatch was strongly supported in her central portrayal by the three other Sisters who convinced the audience that when the going gets tough, the nuns get going. Keshana Ratnasingham as Sister Mary Lazarus, and the well selected Julianne Jayasekera as Sister Mary Patrick and Zahabiya Adamaly as Sister Mary Robert, (who came closest as a look-alike for those who had seen the film original), perhaps made maximum from their advantageous standpoint. 

The real challenge lay in how a cast of over one hundred amateur schoolgirls could be made to hold together over two hours of evening entertainment. It was undoubtedly the choral direction of Beatrice Devasagayam and Anushka Abeyratna and the piano accompaniment by Thivanthi Perera and Bhagyanee Benedict which set the pace. It is after all a play that is sustained by choral music and singing.

Reuniting with the Mother Superior, Deloris is asked to don the the nun’s habit once more and take control of the rebellious music class. It prompts a walkout from Rita Watson but Sister Mary Clarence finally makes the class break out into spontaneous singing. Rita returns to become a lead singer alongside Ahamal played with a natural flair by Shenuka Corea. Other outstanding supporting roles in a class that evolved into a choir were by rap artist Frankie played by Thisakya Jayakody, Vineshka Mendis as Tanya and Vinuri Weerasuriya as Sketch. 

The always most difficult aspect of male portrayals in an all-girl production had been handled extremely well. Chiranthi Senanayake as Mr. Crisp with an outstanding performance was equally well supported by friars – Leanne Amunugama, Dhara Gunewardena, Vashini Benjamin and Nicole Perera, all of whom successfully provided the humour of the evening.
Mary Clarence takes them as a choir to the all-state music competition, and through the passage of intimidation which comes with the accomplishments of other competing choirs. When all seems lost she inspires them to disrobe, and take the stage with whatever they like to wear. They perform to a standing ovation and win. Rita leads the choir into a modern hip-hop inspired rendition of “Joyful, Joyful We adore Thee”.

She had come to Hollywood forging her mother’s signature on a parental consent form to follow her dreams. Her mother follows her to remove her from the choir but is too late. She watches from the audience and realizes her daughter had achieved her dream, and prevented the closure of the school with the new recognition of achievement the choir had brought to the school. She reunites with her daughter and tells her that she is proud of her. 

The play went on the boards as a tribute from the girls to outgoing Ladies’ College Principal for a decade, Nirmali Wickremasinghe, who led from the front.

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