SEATTLE — The message of “Sister Act,” the musical that was to take the 5th Avenue Theatre stage, was not lost on its cast and crew.
Yes, it was excruciating to close the show before it started, said director Lisa Shriver.
On March 11, when “Sister Act” was in the midst of final rehearsals, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on large gatherings.
It was the first of an unprecedented series of bans aimed at stopping the coronavirus’ spread, and it stopped the 2,130-seat theater in its tracks.
Shriver, a New York City-based director, arrived in Seattle earlier this winter to work with the show’s 25-member cast, which includes Carol Swarbrick Dries of Sequim.
Swarbrick Dries is a veteran of musicals at the 5th Avenue as well as on Broadway and other theaters around the country.
In “Sister Act,” she portrayed Sister Mary Lazarus, the nun with a sassy rap song that opens Act 2:
“I’m a celibate sister, but I’m hot as a blister,” she sings. “So hang on to your rosary.”
Mary Lazarus is second in command at the “Sister Act” convent where, as Swarbrick Dries put it, the nuns cultivate “Sunday morning fever.”
That’s the excitement of being filled with the spirit; of feeling lit up with love for God and his people.
When lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Lisa Estridge) arrives, she doesn’t blend in much. Having witnessed a mob-related murder, she’s being hidden away at the nunnery for her own protection. Assigned to the choir, she proceeds to transform the sisters into a soul-singing bunch.
They’re also a diverse choir, ethnically, size- and age-wise.
“We are so rich,” Swarbrick Dries said.
“Working with these ladies was fabulous — their experiences, their familiarity with different styles — and their talent.”
Shriver noted that show business doesn’t have a lot of roles “for women of a certain age” — Swarbrick Dries is in her early 70s — and when such a performer is in your midst, you get to soak up the benefits.
Ellen McClain, the actor portraying Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours, has been singing and dancing on the 5th Avenue stage for more than three decades, so she’s right there with Swarbrick Dries.
“For me, it’s been like a master class in their art form,” Shriver said.
The two women “represent the tenets of a professional, working actress you admire and aspire to.”
To be in the room with them, Shriver added, is to witness exquisite comic timing; “Carol is just an absolute professor” in it.
“You can see her experimenting, and choosing something smart and interesting,” the director said.
When the nuns get talking about the “folk mass fiasco of 1967,” possibly the fault of the Mother Superior, Swarbrick Dries decides not to blame anyone for it all.
“That must have been an amazing time,” she says, all the while wearing a “deliciously mischievous look,” Shriver said.
Swarbrick Dries could have portrayed Mary Lazarus as crusty; instead “you see this character loves being a nun, and cares about the choir,” enough to give Deloris a chance to enliven it as only she can.
Mary Lazarus has her moment, too, and Swarbrick Dries glides into it.
That rap number “could easily slip into caricature,” said Shriver, but “she doesn’t for a second let you rest in any preconceived notion about it. She is fearless and commanding. She rocks the center stage.”
Shriver couldn’t say what the future holds for “Sister Act.” The 5th Avenue Theatre, at 94 years old, is one of the largest arts employers in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also nonprofit.
The mandated closure “represents a major financial loss for the organization to the tune of millions of dollars,” the theater said in a statement. “This loss is profound, so we are asking guests to make a gift to help sustain us at this time.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Shriver, adding that she had hoped “Sister Act” would bring some joy — and harmony, musical and otherwise — into the Seattle area’s charged political climate.
The shutdown is “so out of our hands,” she said.
“I’ve got to count my blessings: the opportunity I’ve had here, and the moments I’ve shared with the cast and the crew. There are things we’ve created in a room that I just have to hold onto.”
Theater is ephemeral, but the gifts of experience stay with you, she believes.
For Shriver and Swarbrick Dries, “Sister Act” is a story of learning from the people around you, whoever they might be.
“We can learn, and grow, from having opened up our hearts to someone who’s given the impression that they’re very different,” Shriver said.
“Embracing uniqueness is what it’s all about.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.