You can’t study drama at Salem College, the tiny women’s school that’s anchored Old Salem for almost 250 years.
There’s no drama department, so the Salem College Pierrettes theatrical troupe exists as an extracurricular, a club good for two shows a year, a drama in the fall and a musical in the early spring. The college was already more than 100 years old when students founded the Pierrettes in 1909, but these days it’s the oldest student-run group on campus, its shows a tradition that provide a backdrop against which so many college memories are painted.
The graduating seniors took up a full page of the playbill for this spring’s stage production of Sister Act with snippets of song lyrics, breathless exclamations and unabashed pledges of love for their fellow players.
It’s this sort of spirit among the cast — along with a script heavy with good female roles — that makes Sister Act the perfect vehicle for the Pierrettes.
“There’s a song at the end, we call it the Sisters Scene, that really captures it,” said musical director Cristy Lynn Brown, herself an accomplished mezzo soprano and voice instructor at Salem. “It’s what life at Salem College is all about.”
Brown relied on some of her vocal students for talent, recruited a few more from the dance department and filled the rest of the cast with theater nerds, shower singers and drama queens from the willing and able ranks of the Pierrettes.
Shania Guy’s star rose from her first moment on stage as the disco diva Deloris Van Cartier, with hair poofed out like Donna Summer in Central Park and her body afire in tight and glittery red. She carried the action between scenes ably, with chops in both vocals and movement
Megan Billups, as Mother Superior, along with other nuns Kate Banick as Sister Mary Robert and Kerri Hughes as Sister Mary Patrick, rose to the fore in the chorale. But scenes featuring the choir of nuns — after, that is, the disco diva takes over the choir — showcased deep harmonies and fine soloing, and even a little rapping.
While she’s teaching the nuns to put on a Vegas-style revue, Van Cartier is also being hunted by her former boyfriend Curtis and his gang of thugs — a crew played, in a sort of reverse-Shakespeare move, entirely by women.
Some of the play’s funniest moments came from the gang dressed in drag, a bumbling squad of doofuses with a few tight song-and-dance numbers and, as it develops, problems of their own. Monsignor O’Hara, played by Ginny Schnorenberg with perfect straight-man levity, runs a wonderful story arc, from grim preacher to funky emcee as the sisters’ act gets better and better.
“They’re here tonight,” he informed the crowd, “in the name of the Father, the Son and You Know Who!”
The only men in the production were all in the fantastic five-piece chamber orchestra, helmed by pianist Jonathan Blake Borton, who graduated from Salem College — the school enrolls men above the age of 23 in the adult education track.
But the nuns owned this show with their singing, wisecracks, antics and wide-eyed innocence; the first time Sister Mary Robert sees a disco ball, she exclaims, “Little Angels! Little Angels.”
And in the end, these members of the Pierrettes come together to sing the final number.
“But what are you left with/ when the lights go out? I’ll have my sisters with me still/ I’ll have my sisters, always will.”
It’s not just drama; it’s something real.