On Stage: “Sister Act”

Last Wednesday, I skipped kickball to take advantage of complimentary tickets to Broadway’s latest movie-to-musical adaptation, Sister Act.  Was it worth missing our first win of the season?  Almost.

Based on the hit Whoopi Goldberg comedy, the  musical of Sister Act adheres almost completely to its source material, save for one smart, significant change.  The tale of Deloris Van Cartier, the fish-out-of-water in a loaves-and-fishes crowd, is not set in the present day west coast, but in late 1970s Philadelphia.  This revision has allowed composer Alan Menken, the patron saint of Disney musicals, to craft a score of disco, R&B, and gospel-flavored hits that occasionally and spectacularly soar.

It should come as no surprise that it’s the numbers with Deloris and the nuns that are the most rocking, but the other numbers could have kept pace if their lyrics, by Glenn Slater, had not been so tongue-in-cheek and self-referential.  Slater should have taken his characters’ own words to heart: sing from the heart.

The major thing holding Sister Act back from breaking through from “good” to “great” is its book, written by Bill and Cherri Steinkellner, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane.  The Steinkellners seemed to have relied too much on the assumption that Broadway audiences already know the story, because the first fifteen minutes are a hurried, harried mess.  I’ve read and watched other works of Mr. Beane’s, so for me, his jokes stood out like a sore thumb.  The guy who wrote something as post-modernly flippant as Xanadu shouldn’t have been called upon to bolster a musical that’s trying to stick to the old school mission of imparting some kind of emotional wisdom.

The cast is led by Pattina Miller, who ably steps into Whoopi’s habit as Deloris, the déclassé disco diva.  Miller plays her strong and sassy, and has a big pop-friendly voice that was a treat from the orchestra, but may have been less impressive in the mezzanine above.  Victoria Clark plays the stodgy Mother Superior.  Known for her more serious and dramatic roles, Clark enjoys laying Mother Superior’s sarcasm on thick and her zingers are timed perfectly.  She has a gorgeous voice, but one more suited to Andrew Lloyd Webber than Alan Menken.  Menken did his best, giving her two solo numbers, but neither was particularly memorable.  The trio of nuns most welcoming to Deloris’ new style of worship (Sisters Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, and Mary Lazarus) are portrayed by Marla Mindele, Sarah Bolt, and Audrie Neenan (respectively).  All three stick close to the templates laid out by their cinematic forbears.

The men of Sister Act are mere supporting players.  Deloris’ gangster boyfriend is played by Kingsley Leggs, with plenty of charm but not enough menace.  His trio of henchmen (John Treacy Egan, Caesar Samayoa, and Demond Green) take up far too much of the show’s time with their antics.  Green, who looks like and seems to be playing a younger Tracy Morgan, was particularly distracting.  Chester Gregory plays Eddie Souther, the police officer tasked with keeping Deloris safe.  He’s an outstanding song and dance man, and it was too bad he only got one number of his own (though it did include one of the most awesome quick-changes I’ve ever seen on Broadway).  Finally, there’s Fred Applegate as the fatherly Monsignor O’Hara, who is among the first to giddily embrace Deloris’ injection of soul into the Queen of Angels parish.

All of these actors and actresses are well-directed by Jerry Zaks.  They run, sway, shimmy, and slide through sets expertly designed by Klara Zieglerova, clad in simple but smart costumes by Lez Brotherston, all while being brilliantly lit by Natasha Katz’s eclectic lighting scheme.

I’ll put Sister Act in the same “go if you can get cheap tickets” category as I did Anything Goes.  The choreography here is less impressive, but the story and music are fresher.  Here’s just a taste of one of the better numbers.

~ T

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