• What: "Sister Act."
• When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday.
• Where: Memorial Auditorium, 399 McCallie Ave.
• Admission: $32.50-$57.50 plus fees, $20 discount for ages 17 and younger.
• Phone: 642-TIXS.
• Website: www.ChattanoogaOnStage.com.
Ta'Rea Campbell discovered a passion for musical theater a little late in the game. She was already a junior in college when she auditioned for her first show -- and only then on a dare from a friend.
"I wanted to be a serious, dramatic actress. I sang in church every week, but it wasn't something I ever thought I would make a career of," she said. "I didn't even know how to do a musical-theater audition when I went to that first one. So I went in and sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' "
Her raw talent made the director stand up and ask, "Who are you, and where did you come from?" she recalls.
Tuesday night, Campbell opens her sixth Broadway show playing diva-on-the-lam Deloris Van Cartier in "Sister Act."
The North American tour of the musical comedy is launching a year of performances after two weeks of rehearsals in Chattanooga. While here, the 57-member cast and crew have been fine-tuning tech cues and polishing their performances.
Before they hit the road, they will present two performances in Memorial Auditorium for the public on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
"Sister Act" is the stage production based on the 1992 movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris. Goldberg is the executive producer of this national tour, along with Troika Entertainment and Stage Entertainment.
Deloris is a nightclub singer who witnesses a mob murder. The detective investigating the murder decides to hide her in the last place anyone would look for her: a convent. Deloris chafes under the convent's restrictions; the only habit she's known is living life on her own terms.
She finds her salvation in directing the convent's singing nuns, eventually turning them into a hip, cool chorus that draws national publicity. What ensues is divine comedy written by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane.
While the musical's plot is the same, the stage production boasts an original score by Tony- and Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken. The cast is backed by a 12-piece orchestra traveling with them.
"It's like comparing a concert on TV to being at the concert. You may know the story and all the songs, but there's nothing like seeing live entertainment," said David Johnson, president of the Tivoli-Auditorium Promotion Association. "It's a funny show."
It's due to TAPA that Chattanoogans have the occasional opportunity to see a Broadway-caliber production in town. Johnson said this launch is the result of networking with agents and producers that began in 1989 when "Gypsy" came to the Tivoli Theatre to rehearse.
He credits five factors to TAPA's success.
First, the relationships built with agents and producers as other touring companies have come to town to prepare. Second, the availability of a venue that meets tech requirements with open dates that meets their schedules.
Third, a venue large enough to provide additional spaces for musicians and cast to rehearse, which both the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium have, Johnson said. Fourth, the ability to hire competent stagehands and technical support locally at a feasible wage. Fifth, whether the city has the resources to obtain last-minute needs, which Johnson said Chattanooga's proximity to Atlanta offers.
Campbell's first Broadway show was "Little Shop of Horrors," in which she was an understudy for all three urchins (the young girls who help tell the story.) She toured with "Aida" and played Nala in "The Lion King" for five years, three of those on the road.
She brings a fresh, youthful vibe to the role of Deloris. She talked about her new role and the road that led a Philadelphia Baptist to Chattanooga to play a nun.
Q: Deloris fraternizes with gangsters and has seen the seamy side of life. What is it about the character that makes her likable to the audience?
A: At the core of Deloris' heart is good intentions and a good heart. She is coming from a good place. She may not always have the right tools, but she has the best intentions, and I think that that goes across the board for all of us.
Q: Whoopi Goldberg has played your role and is executive producer for this tour. Has she spoken with you or influenced your characterization in any way?
A: She didn't come to our rehearsals. But I can say on a personal note that I've met her quite a few times and worked with her. In fact, my first professional job in New York on television was on her short-lived TV show. She was an absolute giving woman then and has been really sweet on the times I've met her again.
What I like about her is that she is a comedian who is very confident in her comedic skills. She's not trying to make the whole world laugh, but the people she makes laugh is enough. I try to use that in my approach to this role as well.
Q: When did you begin singing?
A: I started when I was about 5. I grew up singing in my church.
Q: What was your big break that led to your first job?
A: When you are in New York and an actor, it's really important to get your union card. When I graduated from Marymount Manhattan College, I knew I had to get a "real job," so I went back to my college and got a job as an administrative assistant in one of the departments in the college. It was great because they knew me and knew I wanted to be an actress. They let me have time off for auditions.
After the school year started in September, I auditioned for a show and left in December. My administrative career was short-lived. I got my equity card that same December.
Q: You'll be on the road with "Sister Act" for one year. What is your daily schedule like when you roll into a new city?
A: When I first get to a hotel, I check out the room, the pool and gym. Then I take a walk, maybe go to the drugstore, to give me a tour of the neighborhood.
Then I like to go to the mall. That's my own personal thing. I've been to more malls than you can count because it just gives me a sense of normalcy. It's hard being away from what you know. So if I go to a mall, and I see a Gap or a Cheesecake Factory, it's the same as home.
Contact Susan Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...