Stage preview: 'Sister Act' proves to be homecoming

Woodland Hills graduate returns

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E. Clayton Cornelious has been either on Broadway or on tour almost continuously since he left Pittsburgh for good, but his musical theater career had not brought him back to Pittsburgh as a performer until now, when he arrives with the national company of "Sister Act."

The product of Woodland Hills High School's huge annual musical, Pittsburgh Musical Theatre when it was Gargaro Productions and Point Park University (Class of '00) graced a local stage a couple of years ago when he was a presenter at the Gene Kelly Awards, but he's been pretty busy elsewhere.

Between Broadway roles in "The Scottsboro Boys," "A Chorus Line," "The Music Man" and "The Lion King" were national tours of "Jersey Boys," "Dirty Dancing," "Hairspray," "The Lion King" and "The Wiz," and he portrayed Sammy Davis Jr. in the London production of "The Rat Pack: Live From Vegas!"

"Every time I would do a national tour and it would go to Pittsburgh, it seemed to be late in the tour. When I was younger, I would hop around so much, I would leave a show after a year or six months, and I would never get to Pittsburgh with that show. So this is the first time I'm getting to Pittsburgh with a tour."

He figures the last time he performed on a local stage was a Gargaro production of "Evita." "Seriously," he said, almost to himself, "it was that long ago, like when I was just leaving the city, around '98."

'Sister Act'

  • Where:

    Benedum Center, Downtown.

  • When:

    Tuesday through next Sunday. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. next Sunday.

  • Tickets:

    $20-$68; or 412-456-6666.

He'll be on the Benedum stage beginning Tuesday in the cast of "Sister Act," based on the 1992 movie, as Sweaty Eddie Souther, a role he loves playing, featuring a song he loves to sing.

"I play the good cop, the sergeant. In the movie, he doesn't have much to do or much to say, but for the play, they made the role bigger, thank God," Mr. Cornelious said by phone during a recent tour stop in Boston. "Eddie is a little socially awkward. When the Whoopi Goldberg character, Deloris, comes into the station and tells them she saw a murder by her gangster boyfriend, we look at each other and both say, 'I know you.' Apparently, he's always liked Deloris from when they went to high school. And every time she would come around, he would start to sweat, and that's where he gets the Sweaty Eddie name."

Ta'Rea Campbell, who has played Nala in the Broadway "Lion King" and understudied roles in "The Book of Mormon" and "Leap of Faith," portrays the flamboyant Deloris, and Kingsley Leggs reprises his Broadway role as Deloris' murderous ex, Curtis. The Tony-nominated music in "Sister Act" is by Alan Menken, a Disney veteran with eight Oscars and a 2012 Tony Award, for the score of "Newsies."

The conductor and musical director of the "Sister Act" tour is Brent-Alan Huffman, who comes to the Benedum orchestra pit by way of Blairsville, Indiana County; Carnegie Mellon University; and Broadway. He has collaborated on several Menken film and stage projects as the right-hand man of the composer's right-hand man, Michael Kosarin, and had been involved in developing Disney's "Aladdin" for a 2014 New York opening. His next gig will be a stage version of the Mouse House's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

For now, the conductor continues on the road with "Sister Act," after acting as musical director and keyboardist for the Broadway production.

Mr. Huffman said newcomers often ask if the music in the show leans toward gospel, but "they are confusing it with 'Sister Act 2.' Someone here in Boston asked me if it would involve school kids, and I said no, that was, is, 'Sister Act 2.' It's interesting how the sequel made as much impact as the original movie."

The plot of the stage version comes from the 1992 movie starring Ms. Goldberg as a showgirl with a Motown act who disguises herself as a nun to hide from thugs. The movie was set in the '90s, while the musical takes place in Philadelphia in the 1970s.

"This musical definitely has a disco edge to it," Mr. Huffman said. "When the nuns are singing, it's usually the disco style that Deloris has taught them. When Curtis and his thugs are singing, you are going to hear an R&B sound. When Mother Superior sings, the orchestration leans a little bit toward Sondheim, and then there are just some Alan Menken traditional showstopping numbers. Sister Mary Robert, the novitiate, she sings a song toward the middle of Act 2 that just blows you away. So that's what the audience can expect: A really good blend, a lot of pastiche, a lot of '70s references. Even the orchestrations, there are snippets where the audience might say, that sounds like Hustle or Cool and the Gang. The orchestrator definitely has musical quotes or musical jokes."

Those '70s references, musical and otherwise, run rampant during Eddie's big number, "I Could Be That Guy."

"The song I sing is about trying to be as cool as John Travolta or some of these confident guys. ... It references a lot of Donna Summer," Mr. Cornelious said. "I have a lot of down time in the second act, and listening to the show, you can hear a lot of '70s grooves, almost like 'The Wiz.' This score is amazing. I love it, especially my song. If someone asked me if this is my favorite role, I'd probably say 'Yes,' because it features what I do so well."

Mr. Cornelious "caught the theater bug" sophomore year in the Woodland Hills production of "Li'l Abner." For his return this week, he has been contacted by his alma maters, Woodland Hills and Point Park, and Carnegie Mellon to lend his expertise to future theater artists.

The performer has put out a Facebook call and expects lots of friends and family in the Benedum audience. Mr. Huffman said his sister, who still lives in Blairsville, is bringing his teenage niece and her friends to the show.

"It's a family show for sure," Mr. Huffman said. "My 82-year-old grandmother loves it, too. It's funny, it's musically exciting, and it spins itself into a frenzy by the end. And if you're thinking about leaving before the curtain call, don't. It's sort of like a film with a scene at the end of the credits. So there are a lot of little things right up the very end. You'll leave the theater in such a good mood."


Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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