Kimberly Morgan Myles sees an echo of her own early ambitions in Deloris Van Cartier, the wannabe diva at the heart of “Sister Act” at New Stage Theatre.
Plot circumstances land lounge singer Deloris in a convent in the musical adaptation of the 1992 hit movie that featured Whoopi Goldberg.
Life landed Myles in pageants — as Miss Mississippi 2007 and a Miss America semi-finalist, and now again on the regional theater stage — and in front of a college classroom as well. Reconciliation of professional aims and personal peace hits home.
“I can relate to this story so well because, as a little kid, I had a big dream of being a star,” Myles says. “But, I found out later in life that there are more important things than just having that. And, that was love — and friendship.”
New Stage Theatre presents the musical comedy through June 17, holding it over an extra week when the initial run sold out before opening night.
Myles originally hails from Taylor and nurtured her musical chops early, singing in Second Baptist Church in Oxford and later studying music. She grew up with a severe hearing disability, but her parents never let her dwell on it, she says, and encouraged the pageant experience.
“They were trying to boost my confidence by being on the stage and loving the stage and being OK in front of a crowd and not making excuses … and I ended up doing well.”
There were numerous surgeries, a lot of speech therapy and “I think I really trained myself” in music, Myles says. “After the last surgery, they really just kept me in musicals and theatrical things just to keep me around it, I guess, and to keep me disciplined in it.
“It’s a God thing, really. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
Her reign as Miss Mississippi — “That’ll make a woman out of you, that’s for sure” — meant constant traveling and public speaking. “It was an incredible year.”
Scholarship money was “incredible,” too, and put to good use furthering her education. Myles pursued her Master of Fine Arts degree in acting at the University of Southern Mississippi. She also studied and performed abroad — in London, Paris and Scotland. She teaches theater and creative writing at Tougaloo College, where student Vershaune Stamps is also in “Sister Act”, and was honored as a Mississippi Humanities Council Teacher of the Year.
Myles is married to actor Yohance Myles (TV’s “Queen Sugar,” “Shots Fired” and more, plus a New Stage veteran), with two young children, ages 2½ and 11 months. “We’re very supportive,” she says, with no one-up competitive streak between them. “There are some things that I think, mmm, I’ll stay in my lane on that, that’s ‘You do you,’ and then there are moments when we will seek each other’s help.”
In “Sister Act,” singer Deloris (Myles), witness to a crime, is stashed in a convent by the cops for safekeeping. The Mother Superior may be suspicious, but Deloris helps her fellow sisters in the convent find their voices and unexpectedly taps into reserves of her own.
It’s a big and ambitious musical for the professional regional theater, with 21 in the cast, 36 musical numbers, costume changes (almost as often) as outrageous as its comedy, 25 separate scenes and 23 different locations, with about 20 moving parts of the set — all in constant motion. Hard work, but “We are having a blast,” Myles says.
Flat-out comedy and nothing-sacred humor push the limit, “but you can’t help but laugh,” says Ray McFarland, Monsignor O’Hara in the show. “When everybody — no matter what race you are, or religious whatever — can laugh at the jokes when they happen … it’s just an incredible experience. When we first read through the play, we were on the floor.”
“I think people are really going to be wowed,” says Jessica Wilkinson, in the role of Mother Superior.
Myles sure was, when she saw the original London production of “Sister Act,” with Petina Miller as Deloris. Her reaction then? “I said, ‘Damn!’” she drawls it into a stunned, two-syllable stretch that makes her cast-mates laugh. “I was blown away! … There wasn’t a dull moment, and I saw tons of shows but that one particular show stood out to me.” When she heard about it on New Stage’s season, “I was like, ‘Whaaaaat? That’s going to be quite a stir!’”
She’d been hesitant to audition, she says. “It wasn’t until I ran into Peppy (Biddy, the show’s director) and he said, ‘I know you’re auditioning,’” that she relented and did it.
“The role of Deloris is really hard to sing,” with plenty of high parts, giant belting numbers and that ’70s pop feel, Biddy says, “and really, she’s the only person in Jackson that we know that can do that.” He’d previously directed Myles in 2015’s “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues” at New Stage. “I knew her work ethic and her ability to take direction and make it her own.” Carol Joy Sparkman is the show’s musical director.
Score and songs sweep from sacred to secular, including ballads, church choral music, rap, disco, R&B, musical theater, blues, “mid to late ’70s … with a gospel twist,” Myles says. “You feel a little Disney every once in a while,” she adds. The show’s original music is by Tony- and Oscar-winner Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Shop of Horrors”).
Myles isn’t the ensemble’s only teacher. McFarland teaches theater at St. Andrew’s Upper School. Wilkinson teaches English and directs the a cappella choir at Jackson Prep. Malaika Quarterman (Sister Mary Lazarus in the musical) was named Jackson Public Schools Teacher of the Year for her work at Power Academic & Performing Arts Complex.
So, what’s the takeaway lesson here? “Love one another and spread it around,” McFarland says, with pastoral fervor.
“They’re going to learn not to take themselves so seriously,” Wilkinson says. “Life is fun, and you can smile at things.”
“And, accept other people’s differences,” Myles sums it up. “Love conquers all.”
Show times for “Sister Act” are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays and the show runs through June 17 at New Stage Theatre. For tickets, $35 adults and $28 seniors/students, visit the theater box office or www.newstagetheatre.com or call 601-948-3531.