Sister Act, the new musical based on the movie of the same name, can be viewed as two different musicals. When the action takes place in the convent, Sister Act is a spirited, lively and entertaining Broadway musical. But outside the cloistered walls of the church, the production languishes in plot exposition, matter-of-fact performances, and underwhelming songs. Obviously, when the show is under the guidance and protection of the Lord, Sister Act is a rollicking good time but, unfortunately, you can’t build a successful musical with half the goods.
The general plot follows the movie storyline as would-be disco diva, Deloris Van Cartier (Patina Miller) witnesses a gangland slaying by her sleazy mobster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson, (Kingsley Leggs). Seeking protection from the police, she encounters officer Eddie Souther (Chester Gregory) who just happens to be a high school classmate that also, conveniently, had a huge crush on the threatened woman in his younger days. He whisks her away to a local convent to keep her out-of-sight and safe. At the convent a clash of cultures occur, primarily, between the exuberant and feisty Deloris and the dignified and restrained Mother Superior (divinely played by Victoria Clark).
Van Cartier, told to keep a low profile, instead takes over the solemn, but rather pathetic, church choir turning it into a heavenly sensation. They become a media darling which, or course, leads the bad guys to the convent where, after a brief, chaotic chase through the hollowed grounds, the gangsters are caught and a happy ending prevails.
The main reason to see Sister Act is Patina Miller. She plays Van Cartier with dynamism and gusto. Her powerful voice energizes the stage and shakes the very foundation of Klara Zieglerova’s beautifully conceived and sometimes whimsical sets of the inner sanctums of the church. Miller’s scenes with the gaggle of cloistered nuns provide a continuous humorous thread throughout the production. Standouts among them include Sarah Bolt, Marla Mindelle, and Audrie Neenan. Victoria Clark, as the Mother Superior, gives a more measured performance. However, this allows the actress to deadpan her way through the musical, showing great comic timing with her slow burns and double takes and entendres. Chester Gregory is laid back as policeman “Sweaty” Eddie Souther. While sometimes too nonchalant in his role, he does have a fine voice and some good dance moves.
The music from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater mirrors the show itself. While in the convent the score pulsates with high-octane and disco-inflected numbers such as “Raise Your Voice,” and “Sunday Morning Fever.” Otherwise, the songs are more routine and conventional.
The original book for the pre-Broadway productions of Sister Act, including the London run, was by television writers, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, but the current version is now attributed more to Douglas Carter Beane. Regardless of who takes credit for what, the libretto for the show is perfunctory with flashes of playfulness and amusement.
Director Jerry Zak has done better work previously. He does demonstrate his comedic flair while, surprise, surprise, we are in the confines of the church, but outside the prying eyes of the lord the production limps along until we are back on holy ground.
Sister Act, like many new musicals this year, a big fat average.