Sister Act | Fabulous Fox Theatre

Sister-Act 75I didn’t feel the need to dance with joy or speak in tongues or anything, but I liked it. I liked it a lot.

 

Sister-Act 500

It had not been my intention to like Sister Act, despite its overall positive reception in New York, London, and in productions around the world. I knew Whoopi Goldberg, the original star of the film, was a producer and even played Mother Superior for a while in London. I knew it was nominated for a slew of Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier Awards (though won none), so that reinforced my case against it. After all, some years the field of new musicals offers pretty slim pickings. I had learned it was not a so-called “jukebox musical” with the riffs on 60’s tunes like “My Guy” (transposed to “My God”) and “I Will Follow Him” re-imagined as church music, and instead had a whole new score that was disco flavored. Seriously? I’ve seen Mamma Mia. Most of all, I LOVE the movie, and I didn’t want to see it bowdlerized. So, I took my seat, determined to endure this farce, when after a short while, I smiled, then I laughed, and, in the end, Sister Act is stronger than I was. I didn’t feel the need to dance with joy or speak in tongues or anything, but I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Deloris Van Cartier (neé Doris Carter, played by Ta’Rea Campbell) of Philadelphia, Pa., is a lounge singer but hasn’t gotten any further in her career so far. Her married boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (Melvin Abston), murders an “associate,” and Deloris is a witness. She has burst into Curtis’ office to return a blue fur from him after she sees his wife’s name in the lining. (“It looks like someone shot a Smurf,” one of her backup singers quips.) She gets away, but Curtis and his henchmen Joey (Tad Wilson), Pablo (Ernie Pruneda), and Curtis’ hilariously dimwitted nephew, T.J. (Charles Barksdale), are in hot pursuit, and her future looks grim. She goes to the police and finds the officer who will be handling her case is an old high school classmate who harbored a crush on her back in the day, Eddie Souther (Chester Gregory). His propensity for sweating led to the not-so-flattering nickname “Sweaty Eddie.”

The decision is made over the Mother Superior’s (the sublime Chicago-based Hollis Resnik) strenuous objections to install her into a cloistered order of nuns where she will have to live as a sister until Curtis’ trial comes up in a year. Of course, she ends up directing the choir, and they go from awful to great in about five seconds with Deloris exhorting them to “Take it to 11.” Dubbed by Mother, “Mary Clarence,” (Clarence is the patron saint of prisoners) wild child Deloris chafes at the rules. She soon makes friends with all the nuns, but especially crusty old Sister Mary Lazarus (Diane J. Findlay), young postulant Sister Mary Robert (Ashley Moniz), and Sister Mary Patrick (Florrie Bagel, channeling Kathy Najimy). Yes, they are all called “Mary Insert Saint Name Here,” and my favorite is Sister “Mary Martin of Tours” (Erin Wilson), an apt handle for an ancient nun who can, when it is called for, still sing and dance up a storm.

The original score pulls from various aspects of disco, which was, arguably, born in Philadelphia and called “Philly Soul.” An essay by playwright Douglas Carter Beane supplied with the press material compares Curtis to Lou Rawls and his guys to the Stylistics, and this is fair; however, I heard some Bee Gees in the falsettos too. The show is an old-fashioned book musical, not sung through, but it doesn’t seem too artificial most of the time since music is a big part of the plot. The church and convent where Deloris is stashed is about to be closed and auctioned off, but when Deloris and her heavenly choir pull it all together and throw out some real “soul” sounds, then attendance goes up, contributions increase, and much to the Monsignor’s (Richard Pruitt) delight, the crisis is averted. And speaking of disco-era icons, when the good Father gets down, there’s more than a little Barry White going on.

For her part, Campbell shows more star quality than even her immediate predecessor at the Fox, Eva “Evita” Peron. Also, again according to a press release, the creative team had the idea that the stage Deloris shouldn’t be a washed up performer like the film character; rather, she should be a star in the making, and this convent gig makes that happen. Resnik plays the Mother Superior absolutely straight, thus grounding the production. If she can believe the ridiculous goings on, then so can we. Her moment comes in the moving “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” in which she examines her life and work and wonders whether she has failed. She hasn’t. I found the weaker parts of the show to be those without Deloris in them, despite the fact that the men are excellent performers.

Other highlights include “It’s Good to be a Nun,” which introduces the company in fine comic fashion, as they tell how they enjoy rising at 4 a.m., praying all day, and reading scripture, which fails to impress Deloris. “I Could be that Guy,” allows Eddie to display his superpowers at disco dancing, but only as long as he has on the John Travolta whites. In his own clothing, he’s rather awkward, but “Disco Guy” is a superstar. There’s also some clever costume work in this number. “Sister Act” by Deloris shows how far her character has evolved into this new world of love and goodness and demonstrates how her values have changed. But mostly, like much disco music, while the songs work for the production, they aren’t particularly memorable on their own.

The set is both spectacular and tacky with miles of stained glass and a giant statue of the Blessed Virgin presiding over the proceedings. The lights do amazing things, and there is so much glitter and so many spangles by the end, you almost need sunglasses. There are plainer scenes too such as the nuns’ dining room, Mother’s office (just a desk), and a clever arrangement of doors for the scene when Curtis has located Deloris, but she gets away (again) with a little help from her friends and the ever-reliable Eddie. This is a very loud show — I do wish they’d bring down the mics a bit; if the choir is at 11, the mic level is at 25 — and there were a few sound glitches, but a good time was had by all, and everyone left smiling, even grumpy old me.

Production Note: No local director is mentioned but Jerry Zaks was at the helm of the original production. Choreography is by Anthony Van Laast (who also choreographed Mamma Mia, and I think it shows). Other credits: Music Alan Mencken; Lyrics Glenn Slater; Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane; Music Director-Conducter, Brent-Alan Huffman. | Andrea Braun

Sister Act is at the Fox Theatre through Dec. 1, 2013 (no performance on Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day). For information and performance times, visit fabulousfox.com.

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