When the artistic staff of Raleigh Little Theatre selected the musical Sister Act, by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, they surely knew their audience. The curtain rose on Friday’s opening night to a nearly-sold out house and fell to a standing ovation. With several sold out performances on the calendar, Raleigh Little Theatre has already extended the run by four performances; this show sells. In exchange for such acclaim, the company tasked the cast, mostly college students and even recent high school graduates, with a profoundly challenging vocal score by Alan Menken and Glen Slater. Led by a powerful leading lady, Tyanna West, the ensemble wrestled with complicated melodies and demanding octaves but, if the enthusiastic response from the packed house is any indication of success, the tenable company certainly came out on top.

Based on the 1992 film of the same name, Sister Act follows the journey of show-biz hopeful Deloris Van Cartier in 1970-something Philadelphia. Though the musical score differs entirely from Whoopi Goldberg’s gospel renditions of popular girl group tunes, the plot is the same. When Deloris witnesses her no-good boyfriend Curtis murder a lackey, she goes to the police and subsequently into witness protection. Her former high school pal Eddie, now a Philadelphia policeman, knows that the last place Curtis will come looking for Deloris is in The Holy Order of the Little Sisters of the Mother of Perpetual Faith, a convent. The convent is in jeopardy of closing down, but that all changes when Deloris gets ahold of the humble choir and turns it into a public sensation. Unfortunately, this draws Curtis’ attention, and the sisters must decide whether or not Deloris, whom they have discovered is not actually a nun, is still deserving of their protection.

The warm sense of community among Friday evening’s patrons reflected in the onstage relationships as well. West’s Deloris quickly endeared herself to the sisters of the convent, with the exception of Alison Lawrence’s stern Mother Superior. West and Lawrence, both brilliantly funny, played off of one another’s opposite affects: Mother Superior’s flat cynicism and Deloris’s overt irreverence. Tony Hefner also commanded the humor of the show as Monsignor O’Hara. His wink-and-a-nod delivery was perfectly subtle without going unnoticed by the audience. The rest of the sisters followed the animated lead of supporting trio Mary Lazarus, Mary Patrick, and Mary Robert, played by Kathy Day, Kimberly Genna Bryant, and Averi Zimmermann, respectively. Day impressed in her inaugural role at Raleigh Little Theatre and will hopefully make many return appearances with the company. Bryant packed a punch with her powerhouse soprano and stood out vocally in an ensemble heavy-handed in the soprano section. Zimmermann made an impression as well, both vocally and with her characterization of the subdued but strong Sister Mary Robert. Of the male ensemble, the trio of gangster lackeys, played by Luar Lopez, Orlando Parker Jr., and Jon Todd, provided a humorous foil to the trio of supporting sisters. Except Todd’s cool tough guy Joey, Parker and Lopez had almost unhinged takes on Pablo and TJ. Benaiah Barnes proved a crowd favorite with perhaps the best mastery of the bass-to-tenor range required by the score, and JaJuan Cofield’s portrayal of slick gangster Curtis also stood out vocally in the male ensemble.

All of this hard work from the cast stood on the strong shoulders of a capable production and design team. Musical director Michael Santangelo’s orchestra carried off Menken’s musical score with such professionalism that it was difficult to determine whether the music was live or pre-recorded. Although a musical can often be a plague for a sound designer, Todd Houseknecht managed multiple microphones with only occasional feedback, balancing levels of music, soloists, and choral numbers with little incident (although he may want to consider letting percussion take care of the gun shots). Scenic designer Thomas Mauney kept the set clean with simple backdrops for the various settings, efficiently transitioned in and out with the theater fly system. The few hiccups (a wayward column in the convent and stage hands or actors passing visibly behind set pieces in the scene transitions) occasionally drew focus, but experienced director Nancy Rich will surely correct these minor slips before the next performance. Elizabeth Grimes Droessler’s lighting was straightforward and seamless. Costume designer Vicki Olson presented a comprehensive and thoughtful design that stood out from leading lady to the last ensemble member, despite a minor costume malfunction when a breakaway suit broke away a little too early during Eddie’s solo, “I Could Be That Guy.” (Barnes continued with the professionalism of a seasoned performer and made it work.)

RLT’s Sister Act is funny and surprisingly poignant in the wake of the recent loss of Aretha Franklin. After dedicating Friday’s opening night to her memory, Artistic Director Patrick Torres aptly noted that without her influence, musicals like Sister Act may never have come to be. Even with the occasional technical difficulty and a score that proves a challenge for even the most experienced actors on Broadway, in the words of the playwright, this dedicated cast and crew “puts the ‘sis’ in Genesis.”

Sister Act continues through Sunday, September 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.