Story: Deloris van Cartier, a lounge singer who adapted her name from the famous jewelry, is hoping that her married boyfriend, producer Curtis Jackson, will surprise her with a breakout gig for a Christmas present. Instead, he gives her one of his wife’s old coats. When she goes to his office for an explanation, she sees him kill a man. Curtis then orders his thugs to kill Deloris as she runs away.
Going to the police, she tells her story to a high school classmate named Eddie, now a Philadelphia cop whom she calls “Sweaty Eddie,” a nickname he’d like to forget. Eddie puts Deloris in a witness protection program at a local convent, where she is disguised as Sister Mary Clarence. In between tests of will pitting Mary Clarence against the no-nonsense Mother Superior, Deloris is asked to direct the nuns’ woeful choir at the adjoining church.
Sister Mary Clarence transforms the choir miraculously as they begin belting out spirited versions of old hymns as well as other soulful tunes. That breeds success and notoriety as the impoverished church brings in donations and the attention of the media, as well as an invitation to perform for the visiting pope. When Curtis recognizes Deloris on TV, he sends his lackeys to kill her, underestimating the resilience of Deloris and her ‘sisters.’
Highlights: The musical Sister Act is based on the 1992 film that starred Whoopi Goldberg and was one of the Top Ten box-office hits that year. After tryouts in Los Angeles and Atlanta in late 2006 and early 2007, Sister Act opened in London in 2009 and then made its way to Broadway in a revised version in 2011, where it garnered five Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.
Set in 1977 in Philadelphia, the book by Cherie Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner (additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) allows composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater to tap into the deep reservoir of popular music of that day, including disco, gospel, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. The result is a show packed with several upbeat numbers that compensate for the ‘down’ times.
Other Info: Sister Act’s musical version is uneven, but the good bits exceed the glitches and are quite democratic. The show’s best line, e.g., is spoken in wonderfully deadpan style by Diane Findlay as the drolly named Sister Mary Lazarus when she remarks “My life has been the Stations of the Cross, without the laughs.” Its best lyrics are showcased by Ashley Moniz as the shy, soft-spoken postulant, Sister Mary Robert, in the affecting ballad, The Life I Never Led.
There are some remarkable, eye-catching costume changes undertaken by Chester Gregory as Eddie in his delightful solo, I Could Be That Guy, when the rhythm-challenged police officer transforms into a slick dancer and back again. There’s also an amusing tune, When I Find My Baby, sung by Melvin Abston as Curtis, with his three henchmen (Tad Wilson, Ernie Pruneda, Charles Barksdale) doing their best ‘Pips’ moves in the background.
Absolutely the best number in the show is the penultimate Act I piece, Raise Your Voice, a gloriously sung anthem of the nuns led by Sister Mary Clarence. It starts tenuously and then, as the sisters gain confidence under Deloris’ guidance, is propelled in spirited and stirring fashion, underscoring Anthony van Laast’s effervescent choreography.
On the down side of the ledger is the garish, gaudy set designed by Klara Zieglerova, which features an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary behind the church’s altar rather than a cross with Jesus on it, a definite faux pas. A minor annoyance is the fact that Deloris doesn’t know the Lord’s Prayer despite attending Catholic schools for 12 years.
Ta’rea Campbell has plenty of energy and feistiness as Deloris/Sister Mary Clarence and displays charming chemistry opposite Hollis Resnik as the authoritarian Mother Superior. Resnik does a nice job of softening her character as the show develops, too.
Richard Pruitt does his best Barry White impression as the galvanized Monsignor O’Hara and Florrie Bagel shines as the hyper-happy Sister Mary Patrick. Lez Brotherston designed the wide-ranging costumes that accentuate the disco era beyond the convent walls, Natasha Katz adds tacky neon lighting and Brent-Alan Huffman directs the orchestra in rousing fashion. Jerry Zaks’ direction is better in the fast-moving first act, suffering in the anti-climactic, tedious interludes of the second.
Fans of the film doubtless will recognize many favorite moments in this musical adaptation, deficiencies notwithstanding. Praise the Lord and pass the updated hymnal.
Musical: Sister Act
Company: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
Dates: Through December 1
Tickets: $25-$66; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus