If you need a refresher, the story centers around Deloris Van Cartier, a would-be nightclub songbird who is forced into hiding at a convent after witnessing a murder. Hilarity ensues when a sassy Black singer is plunged into a world of ancient Anglos, but her unappreciated musical prodigy is unleashed when she takes over the ailing choir, and all Heaven breaks loose.
The new book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane effectively translate the story for the stage. Instead of 90's San Francisco, we're in 70's Philadelphia – and it's a strong choice. All the songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are inspired hybrid Disco Showtunes, fun and funny, and will definitely find their way into Best of Broadway compilations.
As a show about singing nuns and sassy sisters, the story lends itself well to stage farce. I would worry that anyone who makes a drinking game of Catholic puns would be at risk of alcohol poisoning. This show is rife with delicious caricatures. Surprisingly, the current offering at the Fox shies away from the cartoonish energy that the script requests. With such fun material, I wonder why director Jerry Zaks' cast is so restrained. I was also surprised to see that much of this cast originated their roles on Broadway.
London critic Matt Wolf writes that Whoopi Goldberg wanted the stage play to present an opportunity for a bright young talent, the kind of opportunity on Broadway that launched her own career. Unfortunately, this adaptation gets a little stuck. It's an hour before the singing nuns even really get to sing, and the relationships that could flourish within the convent walls are rushed – making the pivotal moments of the climax that much less impactful. As Deloris, Ta'Rea Campbell doesn't really unleash until she's tucked into her habit – but then (thankfully) she lets loose. Her work alongside the chorus of nuns, who collectively make up the strongest performance in the show, is rich and fun – it's too bad there's not more opportunity for them to sing and play together.
Another missed opportunity is in Deloris' clashes with her confining convent. What should be conflict driven by cultural naiivety and ethnocentrism can easily come across as mutual ignorance and intolerance. We have little opportunity to see the characters grow, so any revelations come out of nowhere.
In spite of this, as a production, "Sister Act" is solid. I found the scenic design by Klara Zieglerova particularly interesting - Deloris' sanctified confinement is represented by cavernous church walls, while the “outside world” of Philadelphia is more transient, sparse, and fleeting. The Sanctuary where the singing nuns shine is especially effective, both parts divine and discotheque.
In as Catholic a city as St Louis, "Sister Act" should resonate well. However, word to the wise: anyone who would be offended by a disco ball effigy of the Virgin Mother may want to sit this one out. Otherwise, it's a fun show that gets your Travolta finger tingling.