The sound of “Sister Act” rocked down the hallways and through the basement banquet room of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre:
“Take me to heaven! Take me to paradise!”
It was jubilant, dense in harmony, and one expected to sneak into the rehearsal hall and find Regina Marie Williams leading the raucous chorus. Williams portrays Deloris Van Cartier, the street-wise club performer who finds herself cloistered in a convent for her own safety in the musical that makes its regional premiere Friday at Chanhassen.
But no. As the “nuns” pranced and sang, Williams revealed herself very much the adult in the room. Dressed in an athletic suit and running shoes, she penciled notes in her script, found her marks and moved with the efficiency of a junior high gym teacher.
After a few minutes, it became most evident that Williams was this serious actor, holding the center of the room, amid giddy joy.
“She really anchors a rehearsal room,” said her longtime friend Jack Reuler, artistic director at Mixed Blood Theatre. “People love working with her, and there is nothing diva about her.”
Make no mistake. Williams is an entertainer. She has lit up theater stages and nightclubs with a powerful, supple voice and soulful eyes borrowed from the young Diana Ross. When it was announced that Chanhassen would stage “Sister Act,” Williams’ name immediately surfaced among the chattering classes for Deloris, the charismatic dynamo originally portrayed in film by Whoopi Goldberg.
Williams admitted that the role appealed to her because it is an opportunity to take over a room and electrify an audience.
“This is what I always wanted to do,” she said during a long afternoon interview. “I’m an entertainer, a performer.”
Yet, Williams might be one of the rangiest actors working in the Twin Cities — equally adept at musical comedy and the serious stage.
“She’s a fun-loving girl but Regina is always going to get her work done first,” said friend Greta Oglesby.
She was regal as Emilia in the Guthrie’s “Othello,” vulnerable in “Ruined” and fierce in “Yellowman” for Mixed Blood, sympathetic as Suge — the spiritual core of Park Square’s “The Color Purple” — and a wandering soul bereft of love in two productions of “Dinah Was.”
For part of her “Sister Act” rehearsal period, she was working out at Chan from 10 to 6 and then dashing to make her 7 p.m. call for the Guthrie’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“That’s kind of a phenomenon, isn’t it?” said Park Square artistic director Richard Cook. “She really does go to such different ends of the spectrums and she appeals to all those audiences.”
Feels it in her bones
Williams looked weary as she sat down at a coffee shop near her south Minneapolis home. It was a dreary Monday — her day off — and she had just spent hours dealing with friends and family in crisis.
She talked about her woes at length, off the record and under parent-to-parent immunity. Chanhassen rehearses its shows for only three weeks ahead of previews and the stress clearly weighed on her.
“I’m a little nervous,” she said. “Sometimes my work is too much. Austene [her friend, actor Austene Van] always says, ‘Regina wears everything on her sleeve.’ It’s true. I always feel too much. I need to learn to contain my feelings.”
She smiles for a moment.
“My children always say, ‘When Mama is in tech, everyone is in tech,’ ” referring to her habit of carrying the stage home with her in the final days before opening.
That deep emotional investment is among Williams’ greatest gifts as an actor. She is willing to let the history of a character overwhelm her, shake her, and command a performance from her. During “Ruined,” a devastating account of a community affected by the violence of revolution in Central Africa, she said she and her castmates would retire to the dressing room after a performance and just sit.
“No one would speak,” she said. “And then after a while, we’d start to drink. And then we’d drink too much.”
Importance of work
Williams tells the story that when she was 14, in Los Angeles, she got a job at McDonald’s and was so proud that she wore her work hat on the streets. She wanted the responsibility of making French fries but supervisors said that new employees needed to wait three months for that prized task.
“I was making the fries after one week,” she said.
Williams was 18 when she got a job with the roadshow “Sesame Street Live.”
“That was my college,” she said. “How do you turn down $475 a week in 1981?”
She loved going to parties at Jim Henson’s mansion, bumping into Ethel Merman and Ben Vereen. “That’s nutty stuff. When you are around that, you know that what you desire is possible.”
In 1987, Williams moved to the Twin Cities and married John Flynn, a backstage fixture in the Twin Cities theater scene who had worked on “Sesame Street.” Williams found work as a performer at the now-closed FAO Schwarz toy store and eventually ended up as a store manager, but felt she was losing her soul. When a role in “A, My Name Is Alice” at Mixed Blood came up, she grabbed it like a lifeline.
She stayed at Mixed Blood “in a million capacities,” said Reuler, whom Williams calls her oldest friend in the theater business.
She and Flynn had two children — daughter Drew and son Jack — and Williams took her role of mother very seriously. Flynn brought two older children to the marriage.
“Family is her priority,” Reuler said. “She tended to her own mother beautifully in the years before she passed. And a younger brother.”
She also developed a relationship at the Dakota Jazz Club, sang with Sounds of Blackness and put together an album.
Williams met her current husband, Star Tribune photo editor Tom Wallace, in 2001 when the Star Tribune did a story on nine Twin Cities theater talents.
He took photos for her first CD and Williams remembered going to his house to look at the proofs. “It was Grand Central for brides because he did all this wedding business,” she said.
She tried to hook him up with friends because she thought he was such a nice person, and finally decided to ask him out herself. Her reasons say as much about herself as they do about her husband.
“I loved how he treated his mother,” she said. “He is so generous.”
New stage family
“Sister Act” is Williams’ first twirl on the Chanhassen stage, and she said it fits her well.
“There is something over there that isn’t anywhere else — it’s family,” she said. “They care about their work, about each other. I like the way they eat together, visit with each other.”
Her work ethic, attention to detail and knack for stage business has impressed director Michael Brindisi.
“It makes your job so much easier,” he said. “I had all these notes that I made, that I was going to talk with her about, and I never had to give her the notes because she had already figured it out.”
During a rehearsal break, Williams is often in a corner, poring over her script and thinking about the scene she has just run. She’ll often come back and say, “ ‘I think I can make this work — it’s a funny bit,’ ” Brindisi said.
This does not surprise Dennis Spears, her friend for 30 years.
“I directed her in a tribute to Nina Simone and I was floored by how seriously she approached it,” Spears said. “She is very serious and that’s why she’s always so polished and clean.”