At intermission, The Thespian had one reaction to the musical Sister Act. This show will be a community theater royalty cash cow. Of the new musicals to appear on Broadway during the 2010-2011 season, Sister Act is the most family-friendly. It also contains the most female roles of any new musical this past season which saw a pitiful six women deemed eligible for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. For those reasons, Sister Act is a welcome breath of fresh air. That said, the show, while an entertaining couple of hours is not without its flaws.
Based on the 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, who is one of the producers, Sister Act is the story of Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer who witnesses her boyfriend/sugar daddy Curtis Jackson murder a police informant. Seeking help from the police, specifically a high school friend, Eddie Souther, she is placed in witness protection. The location chosen is a convent and the Mother Superior reluctantly agrees to shelter Deloris as the police will pay badly needed funds to help keep the convent and adjacent church open. Deloris is a classic fish out of water as a nun and only when she uses her musical talent to transform the nuns into a singing sensation does she begin to find her place within the community of the convent and discover her heart. Yet, it is the ensuing publicity when the nuns become a singing sensation that alerts Curtis to Deloris' location. Will Deloris live to testify against Curtis? Will the nuns singing save their convent? Will Deloris notice that Eddie loves her? Will the Mother Superior survive this test of faith?
Overall, Sister Act is a delightful romp. The music by Academy-award winner Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater are a mix of late 1970's style disco, jazz, gospel and soul with a few traditional musical theater numbers to round out the score. The period of the film has been changed to Christmas 1977 through early 1978 and this lends itself to rousing musical numbers reminiscent of the time. In particular "Take Me To Heaven", "Fabulous, Baby" and "Raise Your Voice" stand out as does the more traditional musical theater numbers sung by the Mother Superior such as "Haven't Got A Prayer".
The book written by Cheri Steinkiller and Bill Steinkiller with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane only slightly revises the story. The film took place in Las Vegas and San Francisco and Deloris had a successful singing career. The location has changed to Philadelphia and the stage Deloris is looking for her big break. This heightens the stakes for Deloris and it makes more sense that she would tie herself to a wealthy married man, even with his criminal background, in the hopes of becoming a star. Yet, the book contains flaws. Almost all of the secondary characters are archetypes and in a few cases become pretty blatant stereotypes We have the older nun who seems to be a grouchy stick-in-the-mud who breaks out into very contemporary singing. There are the two young nuns, one eternally cheerful, the other the shy postulant who ends up having the amazing voice. Curtis' henchmen include the dumb relative, the poor English speaker, and the brawny tough guy who thinks he is God's gift to women. While the characters are funny and the actors quite good in the roles some of the characterizations border on tasteless.
Some of the stereotyping can be laid at the feet of veteran director, Jerry Zaks. There are moments when the actors exaggerate gestures, clearly playing up to the audience for a cheap laugh. One instance stuck out for The Thespian during Eddie Souther's big number "I Could Be That Guy.". The character of Eddie, played well by Chester Gregory, is nicknamed Sweaty Eddie, yet the character yearns to be the suave man of Deloris' dreams. During the number Eddie becomes that dream version of himself yet before that transition occurs he makes awkward attempts to be suave that are strictly played for laughs. They seem forced and done solely for laughs, which the character does receive, yet The Thespian thought that they were unnecessary. And the problem is repeated, usually involving the criminal characters. Such over-the-top moments distract from what is a genuinely good story with a lot of heart. Some judicial reining in of those acting impulses are needed.
Despite those flaws, Sister Act has much to recommend it including several wonderful performances. The aforementioned Mr. Gregory is a charming performer who navigates Curtis' growth from awkward cop to Deloris' champion. The trio of thugs, played by John Tracey Egan, Caesar Samayoa and Desmond Green clearly are enjoying playing their dimwitted hit men and stand out in the number "When I Find My Baby" backing up the villainous Curtis Jackson. As Curtis, Kingsley Leggs is both charming and threatening.
The nuns are all named Sister Mary (insert saint name). There is a clever theatrical nod in the naming of the otherworldly Sister Mary Martin of Tours. Audrie Neenan is appropriately gruff as Sister Mary Lazarus, Sarah Bolt bubbly as Sister Mary Patrick and Marla Mindelle sweetly naive with a big heart and bigger voice as Sister Mary Robert. Her heartfelt anthem "The Life I Never Led" is a standout moment in act two.
The most endearing performance is given by Tony nominee Victoria Clark as the Mother Superior. There is absolutely nothing artificial or stereotypical about her performance. Her Mother Superior is a woman worried about her charges and terrified of the dangers and potential changes to her convent that Deloris represents. It is delightful to see such an emotionally genuine performance from a role that could have been played as stereotypically antagonistic. Yet, the Mother Superior's resistance to embracing what Deloris has to offer comes from clear character choices instead of cardboard villainy.
As the focal point of all this chaos we have Tony nominee Patina Miller. Ms. Miller originated the role of Deloris in the West End production and brings a mix of brass, sass and vulnerability to Deloris. With a voice that could probably handle not being miked Ms. Miller soars through the score. Yet, beneath her glitz lies a woman who just wants to be a headliner singer and find true love. She is simply delightful.
Sister Act is being performed at The Broadway Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.telecharge.com