As dancing nuns take over Gozo’s Teatru Astra with humour and high heels, The Sunday Times goes behind the scenes to find out more about their latest production, Sister Act: a divine musical comedy (runs from Thursday 19th-Sun 22nd March).

Based on the 1992 film sensation of the same name, and set in 1970s USA, Deloris (played by Dorothy Bezzina) is a strong woman, a flamboyant and sexy club singer, who longs for a white fox fur. After witnessing a shooting incident, she stands up to the mob boss whom she’s been dating and for her own protection is then hidden by the police in a nunnery. This place of sanctuary houses the most drab yet pious group of nuns, led by straight-laced Mother Superior.  How will Deloris fit in? Does she have a prayer? Renamed Sister Mary Clarence, and now dressed in a “huge freakin’ penguin dress”, Deloris is not a natural nun, but has God sent her there for a reason?

“We chose Sister Act this year because it is such a fun story. The show is packed with popular songs, catches the imagination and gently pokes fun at what we know,” smiles Michael Formosa, President of Socjeta Filarmonika La Stella. Indeed, in a country where religion lies at the core of much of everyday life, and particularly in Gozo with its reputation for holding dear old traditions, some of the classic lines in the script are lightly-provocative. However, as attitudes in society change over time, it is refreshing to see this trail-blazing theatre help push boundaries in such a family-friendly way. Heading through the grand marble foyer, beneath the stained-glass skylight, into the joyful reds and golds of the 1200-seater auditorium, it seems a perfect choice.

“There are some brilliant comic lines in the script and during rehearsals we all end up laughing!” says Production Manager Andrea Camilleri. “We have even brought in one of Malta’s best comic actors, Pia Zammit, to be Mother Superior.”

Despite being inspired and influenced by the mainstream versions of the musical, the creative team have added their own stamp to the production.  Christopher Gatt (artistic director), Francesco Nicodeme (choreographer), Mariella Spiteri Cefai (Vocal Director) and conductor MRO Sigmund Mifsud, have been working relentlessly, and with meticulous detail, to bring the best musical yet to Teatru Astra.

Presenting its fifth musical in five years, alongside the opera for which it has long been renowned, the theatre is fast becoming a centre of excellence for this genre on the islands. “We’re delighted that the musical theatre in Gozo is going from strength to strength, and we’re working to bring in the best talent in the Maltese Islands. I thank the foresight of the people who first built the theatre over fifty years ago. It’s a very big space in which we rehearse for the three months before the show with a cast of forty to fifty people. Over the last twelve months we have also invested €100,000 into the backstage areas so that, looking forward, we can produce bigger and better musicals, and for the first time this year we are running the show for four nights,” continues Michael.

With twelve scene changes to negotiate, using revolving technology, projections and other tricks,  the set-building team have cleverly created sets from a bar to a confessional and the giant grey-stone arches of the nunnery. The costumes have been designed and made specifically for the show and luscious fabrics sparkle under the light as the demure clerical robes give way to the shimmering silver glamour. “We also sourced an old jukebox in Malta which we brought back to Gozo on the ferry,” smiles Michael.

“It has been so much fun working with all the musical departments and seeing all the elements come together in an extravaganza of colour and glitz is exciting. It’s going to be a real spectacle.” adds Andrea.

Back on stage, new Sister Mary Clarence takes charge of the humble and musically-challenged choir, and helps the nuns get the rafters ringing with their singing, suggesting that they stand tall and proud if they want the world to listen. It’s a great message for a small island nation as well as a nunnery. And as ‘Queen of Angels’ church becomes a sensation, so does the stage as monochrome nuns transform into the brightness of a disco. Deloris, it seems, is a godsend, filling the pews with people.

While this is not a dark or emotionally-charged show, it is packed full of life, soul and infectious fun, with laugh-out-loud moments and real feel good factor. It also has a strong sense of sisterhood and clearly highlights the importance of true friendship over materialism. We see policeman Eddie Souther come good, Deloris’ new friend timid Sister Mary Robert finally speak up for what she believes in, and all the nuns including the intransient Mother Superior come together for a “Pope Gig” finale.

What could be a more heavenly evening out for all the family? Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

First published in The Sunday Times of Malta, 8th March 2020