nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 26, 2011
Sister Act is the happiest surprise of this Broadway season: yes, it's based on a popular movie and, yes, some Broadway pros were called in as "show doctors" by the producers. But it works! Douglas Carter Beane and his co-librettists Cheri and Bill Steinkellner have re-thought Joseph Howard's original screenplay to figure out exactly how it should sing and dance and move on the stage, and director Jerry Zaks doesn't just make it move, he makes it fly. Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, who previously teamed on The Little Mermaid, have supplied the wittiest score I've heard on Broadway in ages—not just lyrics that make you laugh out loud, but music that's funny too, filled with delicious references to the Disco Era in which this tale takes place. And the icing on this already terrific cake is Broadway's newest star, Patina Miller, who makes a role we thought belonged to Whoopi Goldberg very much her own.
As you may recall, Sister Act is the story of Deloris Van Cartier (nee Doris Carter), a Donna Summer wannabe with a big voice, big dreams, and a big ego, but not too much else. When we meet her, she's the mistress of a Philadelphia gangster named Curtis Jackson, and even that gig looks like it's about to end when he gives her, as a present, a coat that used to belong to his wife. Deloris is all set to tell Curtis what's what, but the moment she picks for her departure is also exactly one moment after Curtis murders a man for snitching to the cops. Suddenly, Deloris's second-hand coat is the least of her problems; she needs to get into witness protection, and fast. Luckily, the policeman on duty when she arrives at the station is Eddie Souther, a guy who's had a huge crush on Deloris since high school. He gets the idea to hide her out in a local convent, and the story proper starts to ignite.
Mother Superior, not unreasonably, expects something like nun-ly behavior from Deloris, and that's not so easy for our heroine to deliver. But when Deloris is put in charge of the nuns' choir—who heretofore had a sound that could only be described, charitably, as unique—she finds that she has something to give to others, awakening the joyful noise within each of her fellow sisters. The choir becomes a sensation, the church—which had been threatened with imminent extinction—becomes wildly popular; even the Pope plans to pay a visit before our story is through. And of course Deloris and Mother Superior learn something from their experiences with one another (and I really liked the way that Mother Superior gets to sum that up—the idea that the divergent ways each of them exhibits what's best and godliest within themselves are ultimately exactly the same).
Sister Act's creators dress up this improbably charming fairy tale with an endless stream of jokes and tunes, which are performed by an ensemble that feels pretty perfect. The musical numbers for the nuns' choir are definite highlights, featuring delightful disco-inspired music and choreography (the latter by Anthony Van Laast), and increasingly gaudier and sillier costumes and sets (Lez Brotherston and Klara Zieglerova, respectively); suffice to say that you ain't seen nuns' habits quite like these before... and you ain't seen stained glass windows like these, either. I loved the inventiveness of the designers here, dressing up basic black with lots of flash and irreverence.
I love even more that Zaks has not compromised in casting his show. Deloris's world is the streets of a big city, and that's reflected in actors who are almost all African American and Hispanic in these roles. The nuns' world is, well, a world of women, and so the majority of the players in Sister Act are women of varying shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities, all treated with respect and never objectified for even a second. The women of Catch Me If You Can should only be half this lucky.
Victoria Clark draws the plum role of Mother Superior and makes a great deal of it; among her flock, standouts include Audrie Neenan as Sister Mary Lazarus, a dour nun who is choir leader before Deloris arrives, and Sarah Bolt as Sister Mary Patrick, the most cheerful nun ever. Fred Applegate is fun as the Monsignor, who takes to his growing celebrity like a duck to water. Chester Gregory, who plays Eddie, has a sensational solo in Act One called "I Could Be That Guy" that ranks among the best numbers in the show; it's a shame that the story doesn't really permit him to break out with another similar bit in the second half. The Act Two honors go instead to John Treacy Egan, Caesar Samayoa, and Demond Green, who, as Curtis's none-too-competent henchman, plan their attack on the convent in a swell song called "Lady in the Long Black Dress."
Miller dominates the proceedings from start to finish, though, without a shred of ego or indulgence. Her performance as Deloris showcases her beauty, charm, and triple-threat talent as actress, singer, and dancer. If the Broadway gods are smiling, we will see much more of her in the future.
Sister Act's second act is possibly too fraught with incident to be judged 100% successful, but this is one of the better books a new musical on Broadway has been provided with in years. And when was the last time you left a show that wasn't a revival humming a couple of its hit tunes? ("Take Me to Heaven" and "Spread the Love Around," the finales of the two acts, are particularly infectious.) I love it when a new musical delivers solid and satisfying entertainment, and I respect it all the more because it happens so rarely. With this "divine musical comedy," the miracle is worked. Check out Sister Act and enjoy yourself.