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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
Just this morning, Patina Miller was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her starring role in Sister Act, the Broadway musical adaptation of the 1992 film about Deloris Von Cartier, an aspiring nightclub singer who goes into hiding in a convent after she sees her mob-boss boyfriend murder an informant. Hijinks and high notes ensue when Deloris brings her showbiz savvy to the church's struggling choir.
Miller's Tony nomination follows years of hard work: She was in the ensemble when Sister Act made its regional premiere in 2006, and she starred as Deloris when it moved to London's West End in 2008.
And she hasn't simply transplanted from London to New York. Sister Act has been overhauled by director Jerry Zaks, who reimagined many scenes, and playwright Douglas Carter Beane, who added material to the original book.
In fact, you could argue that on Broadway, Miller's playing a different role. "In this version, my character has an arc," she says. "As much as she can be loud and brassy and funny, you can see her vulnerable side in the second act. She actually is very vulnerable, and the nuns bring out that thing in her she didn't know she had. She has a realization about herself that I feel wasn't there before, and Douglas Carter Beane has made it easy for me to make that transformation."
Miller savors the scene where the sisters discover Deloris is not actually a nun. For a moment, the production trades its disco-inspired score and sassy choreography for a quiet revelation. The sisters confront Deloris with her lie, and it's clear that everyone has been hurt.
That builds on the tenderness of an earlier number, when the young nun Sister Mary Robert (Marla Mindelle) sings a solo about her life. In that scene, Deloris finally stops talking and preening and just <i>listens</i>
But then again, Sister Act is a musical comedy, not an evening Mass. To honor the material, Miller has to balance tenderness with larger-than-life pizzazz.
And it's tough to dazzle the crowd when you're wearing a habit: "It took a lot of practice to learn how to move around," she says. "Those veils are long, and there's something covering your ears and your throat. For the dance moves, you have to be a bit bigger, because you can't really see the moves in the costumes. Everything has to be exaggerated."
There's a danger, of course, in being too exaggerated, especially since Deloris, who starts the show in thigh-high purple boots and a leopard-print dress, is already flamboyant. "Jerry really worked with me a lot on how big to be," Miller says. "He always said, 'Trust me. Go for it, and I'll always tell you if it's too much.' There were times when I thought, 'Oh, I'm being too big right now,' and Jerry said, 'No, you're not. I want everyone in this 1,600-seat theatre to see what you're doing and hear what you're saying.'"
So how does she balance the big moments with the quiet ones? "There's a big difference between 'being big' and' pushing,'" she says. "As an actor, you know when you're pushing. It just doesn't feel right. My job is to know the difference while I'm on stage. I don't want to be a caricature. This is a real person who has real emotions, and she's put in a tough situation. Yeah, it's funny, but it's also real."
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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor