Strong vocals anchor a joyous production played for mass appeal
“Sister Act” is now on stage at The Players Centre. This 2006 musical is based on the 1992 Whoopie Goldberg movie. A convent comedy, but not unconventional; you pretty much know what you’re in for.
Based on their appearances in movies and TV, nuns come in three varieties: Some fly; some whack your knuckles with rulers; others teach people to sing. The heroine of “Sister Act” is a nun of the third variety. (She’s technically not a real nun, but let’s not argue theology.)
The nun’s story? OK. You’d need a heroic suspension of disbelief to take it seriously. A papal dispensation wouldn’t hurt. But here goes …
The movie transpired in Reno and San Francisco. The musical shifts the scene to disco-era Philadelphia. The multitalented Deloris Van Cartier (Javisha Strong) is the next Donna Summer. But her gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (Eldred Brown), won’t give her a break in showbiz. He’s too busy killing people, dig?
Deloris witnesses him doing just that. As Curtis is particularly fond of killing witnesses, Deloris runs to the police. They put her in witness protection until she can testify. That’s going to take awhile. Philadelphia’s courts are backed up, so she’ll have to hide out for a year. Where? A convent, what else? The one inside the Queen of Angels Church. In Philadelphia.
Mother Superior (Meg Newsome) reluctantly agrees, and they doll up Deloris in nun garb. Officially, she’s now "Sister Mary Clarence.”
Deloris chafes at the convent’s rules and regs. But in true Julie Andrews-ish style, she teaches the choir of tone-deaf nuns to sing — hand-clapping hallelujah harmonies with a disco/gospel/soul groove.
Mother Superior thinks disco is the devil’s music. But the convent choir is now a righteous hit. Their joyful noise packs the pews and puts the church in the black. It’s a lead story on Philly TV stations. That gets the Pope’s attention. Now, his holiness is flying in to hear the next "nuncert."
But TV coverage of the singing nuns (and of Deloris’ smiling face) gets Curtis’ attention too. He shows up to stop the music — and gets what’s coming to him before you can say, “Deus ex machina.”
“Scooby Doo” is more believable. My advice? Leave verisimilitude on the sidewalk and check logic at the door. Don’t take it seriously and you’ll be OK.
Director Sunny Smith and the cast and crew jump into this silly story with both feet. They splash around in it. They sell it. They have a real good time, and the audience does too.
Strong steals the show. Her diva-ish Deloris is truly lovable, and bursting with the life force, a heavenly ambassador of joy to uptight nuns. And she can sing like hell, too.
Randy Knee’s Monsignor O'Hara does a funny turn to a smarmy showbiz groove. Brenna Griffith is sweet as Sister Mary Robert, a repressed postulant who can really belt it out when she cuts loose. Rodney Piatt is a hoot as “Sweaty Eddie,” a cop still carrying a torch for Deloris since high school. Peg Harvey is a spitfire as Sister Mary Lazarus, the choir leader. Brown’s Curtis is sufficiently menacing. His incompetent minions are not.
A live orchestra makes all the difference. Music director Alan Corey leads a bodacious band somewhere out of sight. Once Kelly Burnette adds her kicky choreography to the mix, the joint is definitely jumping. Georgina Wilmott has fun with the flashy, disco-era costumes. Gabriela Freeman evokes church and convent with a starkly minimal set. It turns into a rainbow cathedral, thanks to Michael Pasquini’s lighting.
No musical is without sin. “Sister Act” is no exception. Credit or blame goes to composer Alan Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater—and no less than three writers, Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Cater Beane.
Forgive their sins against logic and you’ll have fun.
This production’s a bouncy celebration of a pop gospel of love, love, love. Strong sings her heart out and dials it up to 11.
If disco’s your thing, you’ll be in dancing on Cloud Nine. If your deepest circle of hell is the Disco Inferno, you won’t.
Go in peace.