Sister Act is a movie that has been turned into a musical – not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve never quite understood the grounds for objection. No one ever turns up their nose at Guys and Dolls and says, “Oh, but it’s based on a couple of short stories. How derivative.”
Anyway, Sister Act. The hit 1992 movie, you may recall, was about a lounge singer named Deloris, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who goes into witness protection in a San Francisco convent and jazzes up the choir. Singing sisters: It’s a no-brainer for musical-theatre material.
The stage adaptation shifts things a smidge – it takes place in 1978, and in Philadelphia instead of San Fran. The latter choice seems to have been primarily so Deloris can evince a passion for cheese steaks. (I don’t think that’s what they mean by fleshing out a character.)
So, Deloris (Ta’rea Campbell) walks in on her generic gangster boyfriend Curtis (Kingsley Leggs) as he’s executing a stool pigeon – and then takes flight to the police. Officer Eddie (a charming E. Clayton Cornelious), an old classmate of Deloris’s and a perfunctory romantic interest, takes her to a convent.
Naturally, Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) is not so hot on having the go-go-booted Deloris among her wimpled sisters – and voices a long string of complaints to God. “I know you work in mysterious ways, but this is one for the books,” she says, pulling out what seems like an interfaith impersonation of Tevye.
Speaking of books, Sister Act’s is written by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, a duo perhaps best known for their Emmy-winning work on Cheers. The quality of their dialogue varies wildly. On the one hand, there are a many, many cheesy nun puns; I lost track of the number of times one character or another said some other character “didn’t have a prayer.” On the other, there’s a really funny joke about Barrabas that I seemed to be the only one to laugh at. To be charitable then, I guess what I’m saying is that Sister Act has something for everyone.
The songs are by Alan Menken, the Little Shop of Horrors tunesmith turned Disney hall-of-famer. This score’s not necessarily his most original work – homages to the Bee Gees and, anachronistically, the Sugarhill Gang mix with songs that sound a lot like they came out of Aladdin or Beauty’s mouths. Curtis’s song When I Find My Baby, for instance, goes a little something like this: “I’m gonna shoot that girl / and then I’ll stab that girl.” It seems like a parody of Kiss the Girl, but its lyrics are just creepy not sung by a cartoon crustacean.
That said, director Jerry Zaks does direct the show like a live-action cartoon, consistently sending a strong message that we shouldn’t worry very much about the characters getting hurt.
This approach only becomes problematic when we’re supposed to care what’s going on, or, for instance, about Deloris – who, as played by Campbell, has a lovely voice, but walks through the show keeping it at a safe distance.
The only character I particularly felt a pang for was shy Sister Mary Robert (the doe-eyed Lael Van Keuren), who hides away behind a set of Feist bangs and dreams of being part of the world outside the convent walls like – what do you call it? – the Little Mermaid.
If this sounds like a litany of complaints, well, the musical is overall pretty solid family fun – no one rhymes anything with the main character’s name, anyway – and on par with one of the better Ross Petty Christmas pantomimes.
Sister Act runs until Nov. 4.