REVIEWSTheatre Reviews

Sister Act the Musical

Directed by Jerry Zaks

Composed by Alan Menken

Lyrics by Glenn Slater

Book by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner

At Auditorium Theatre

A glitzy redux of the movie that has a lot more sequins and little of the soul

Let’s get this out of the way right out of the gate: none of the songs from the original hit 1992 movie are in this production. So don’t go in expecting to hear them. Or to see much semblance of the characters, for that matter. The plot’s relatively intact though…kinda. At least the premise. Little of the charm and wit remains in Sister Act the Musical, replaced by the kind of overproduced franchising that says to itself, “If less is more, think how much ‘more’ more is!”

Not that the original is great art mind you, but it is great comedy (83 on Bravo’s 100 Best Comedies list, and I have personally watched it at least 40 times). One of the last lingering 80s-style movies that crossed the decadal barrier into the 90s for a last gasp of feel-good silliness. The fish-out-of-water concept is a classic comic staple, and the story of a lounge singer hidden in a convent is a great place to mine comedy gold. When Deloris Van Cartier (Ta’Rea Campbell) witnesses her (married) boyfriend and mafioso boss Curtis (Kingsley Leggs) kill an informant, she’s given sanctuary in an ascetic convent in Philly’s south side. Who’s bright idea was this? None other than a cop with a high-school age crush on Deloris, Eddie (E. Clayton Cornelious). The sudden injection of flash doesn’t sit well with the reserved Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik), who can’t do anything but watch in consternation as her convent of cloistered choirmaidens are transformed from dreadful to fabulous overnight. Turning the ailing church into a lounge act may just save the church though, so Deloris-turned-Sister Mary Clarence must chose between saving her own life or the livelihood of her fellow sisters.

Whoopi Goldberg took over the role of Deloris when it was turned down by Bette Middler, capitalizing on her Oscar fame following Ghost. Her personality-driven performance was the perfect foil for Maggie Smith as Mother Superior, while Kathy Najimy (Sister Mary Patrick) and Wendy Makkena (Sister Mary Robert) were pitch-perfect as partners in crime. It was that chemistry that catapulted the story and bolstered it when the silly premise threatened the suspension of disbelief. Whoopi has a producer credit on the musical version, and it’s so surprising to me that it seems to pay only lip service to some of the more endearing parts of its inspiration. The conflict between Deloris and Mother Superior is played up, while the incredibly unnecessary addition of Eddie’s crush on Deloris takes up time that could have been devoted to showcasing more of that sisterly love that supposedly plays a huge role.

Pushing the timeline back to 1977, there’s almost no hint of the big 60s sound arrangements Marc Shaiman created for the original. It’s all disco and book numbers, and at two and a half hours, it lacks the diversity necessary to maintain an audience, and I fought sleepiness as the second hour rolled around. The humor here is just blatant and crude. Did I really hear the word “IncoNegro” come out of Deloris’ mouth? There’s no sense of genuine comedic timing, just broadcast that a joke is coming, pause to acknowledge a joke has occurred, then point to that joke. Every part of the original is amped up and tweaked until it’s shrill, then splattered in glitter to cover the seams. I like a fabulous romp too, but if I see another rapping granny (yes you heard me: rapping granny) in anything, ever, it’ll be far too soon. There needs to be a lot more finesse in this nunnery. And as an aside, a fay nephew hitman and a joke about ‘bachelors who deal in antiques’ is repeated too many times to be funny. We get it already. Where’s the gentle-natured humor of the movie?

Musical numbers by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are equally forgettable and over the top to the point of garrish. At least four numbers could be cut or have their time devoted to developing other characters. Who cares what Curtis or his henchmen have to sing about (it’s wooing nuns, apparently), or even Eddie for that matter. If you’re going to sell a story about the transformative power of sisterly bonds, spend a little more time there. Ta’Rea Campbell has a fantastic voice, as does the incomparable Hollis Resnik, and even in one-dimensional roles it’s clear they’re quite talented and giving it their all. If only there were some memorable dance numbers by Anthony Van Laast beyond just moving the hands about and shimmying. Where’s the inspiration? Even the gospel numbers are cliched—could they not get the rights to some actual hymns to glam up?

Given that the movie was one of the top grossing films of the 90s, it’s understandable that it would be an appealing franchise to exploit in the ever growing list of movies-turned-musicals that look like a safe bet for investors. Having already been reworked several times as it crosses the country (and London), it’s possible a good musical may yet be born of the concept. All that really needs to be done is remember what made the original a success and get back to that blend of genuine sweet and sassy soul instead of this crass commercial cash grab.

Not Recommended.

Clint May

Date Reviewed: November 14, 2012

At Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress, Chicago, IL 60605, tickets $23-103, Wednesdays thru Fridays, 7:30pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm & 7:30pm, running time 2 hours 30 minutes with 1 intermission, through December 2.

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