“Sister Act”

One thing that surprised me about Sister Act: The Divine Musical Comedy (that’s some billing) is that it’s rather entertaining. The new musical based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film wants you to have a good time and pulls out every possible stop to do so. However, it’s also not very good; a by-the-numbers screen to stage adaptation lacking inspiration. Not everything is terrible, the show moves the action to late 70s Philadelphia and makes some concerted effort to be different from its source; but it’s the effort shows at almost every turn.

The show makes its inevitable appearance on Broadway after runs in Atlanta, the Pasadena Playhouse and most recently in London. The original book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner has been spiced up for Broadway by Douglas Carter Beane (and you can pretty much call Beane’s lines as you hear them). The book’s structure speaks to the second or third tier Golden Age musicals of the ’50s & ’60s. The dialogue creaks, some of the lines are just cheap (Deloris’ “going incognegro” stands out among the worst) and there is a preference for style over substance. These moments can be elevated or overlooked on account of the stellar cast, led by newcomer Patina Miller as Deloris.

Director Jerry Zaks has given the show a fluid pace, while Anthony van Laast’s generic 70s choreography fails to make a lasting impression. Lez Brotherston has designed the costumes, coming up with one exceedingly gaudy variation on a habit after another (and probably used up all the sequins in New York). However, it seems that no one on the creative team had an idea what a nun was like except from what they learned from The Sound of Music, and that showed in the way they were portrayed (with one notable exception, more on that later).

Ms. Miller is quite a find; a real triple threat with charm, poise and exceptional beauty. There is instant likability, and the star takes a more sincere and less sassy approach to Deloris than one would expect from the film. In the spirit of empowerment, she teaches her nuns to stand up to Mother Superior, but simultaneously discovers her self-worth. It’s a breakthrough performance, and we’re bound to see a lot more of Patina through the years, but the role as written doesn’t quite let her soar through the stratosphere as it should. She tears into her numbers with aplomb and style, particularly “Fabulous Baby,” but she is at her most effective and most appealing in the eleven o’clock spot, the title song.

The production’s hidden asset is none other than Tony-winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) as Mother Superior. In a role that could easily be a cardboard cutout of austere authority, Ms. Clark grounds the entire production with a fully realized character, and the most honest, compelling performance onstage at the Broadway Theatre. The re-conception of the role was enough to warrant a second solo spot for Mother Superior in the second which offers the character a chance to express her crisis of faith. While I’d prefer to see the soprano as the Reverend Mother in that other aforementioned musical with nuns, it’s just a pleasure having Ms. Clark back on Broadway where she belongs.

Audrie Neenan scores major laughs channeling Mary Wickes as Sr. Mary Lazarus, Marla Mindelle gets to belt it to the rafters as Sr. Mary Robert. Chester Gregory plays “Sweatie Eddie,” the Philly cop assigned to Deloris (and in a more interesting creative stroke, the librettists gave him a backstory with Deloris, including an unrequited crush). Gregory is a major talent, but his number “I Could Be That Guy” doesn’t suit his ability (though it contains the most impressive quick changes in the show). Fred Applegate is always a delight, here playing eager Monsignor O’Hara.

One of the charms of the original film was the way existing Motown standards were adapted for the nun’s choir (also it was fun seeing old Broadway pros like Susan Johnson, Ruth Kobart and Beth Fowler among the singing nuns). This new original score is mostly charmless, occasionally awful and mostly unmemorable. It’s a mixed bag of disco pastiche and typically Menkenesque power ballads. The show is at its worst with songs like “It’s Good to Be a Nun” and the disgusting “Lady in the Long Black Dress” (three thugs sing about seducing nuns). The song most likely to be hummed as you leave the theatre is the opening “Take Me to Heaven” which is given the Golden Age treatment of multiple reprises throughout the show. “The Life I Never Led” feels like something written for and rejected from any of the animated films Menken has scored in the last twenty years.

Broadway has a new middle of the road crowd-pleaser on its hands. Sister Act is destined to do well among tourists and I imagine its success in New York will surpass that of London. I just wish the entire production was as flawless as Ms. Clark.

"Fanny" at Encores

There’s good reason that Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak received the star-billing for Fanny when the musical opened on Broadway in late 1954. Though the show was named after its ingenue, and her character is most important to the entire dramatic thrust of the evening, the play belongs to two older men Cesar and Panisse, lifelong friends whose bonds of bickering friendship are further tied together by the function of this girl in their lives. A couple of codgers (as Kari called them), the wisdom and experience of the two men provides some beautiful and poignant contrast to the naive passion of the young lovers. It is the quieter moments provided by these characters where the musical reaches its emotional heights.

The two men have lived across the street from one another for year; Cesar owns and operates a popular cafe, Panisse runs a successful store. They play cards together, they drink, they bicker, etc. The widower Cesar lives in the cafe with his son Marius, who longs to escape and explore the world by sea (much to his father’s disapproval). The recently widowed Panisse finds himself stepping out of his mourning clothes three months following his wife’s death, looking to remarry to avoid the loneliness, compounded by the inability he and his wife had to produce an heir. Enter Fanny, a charming waif who sells fresh shellfish for her mother, Honorine. Fanny loves Marius; Marius loves Fanny but not enough to shake off the call of the sea and Panisse is smitten with Fanny. Complications arise when Fanny is impregnated by Marius, and in light of Marius running off to sea marries Panisse.

The new musical, which opened on Broadway in late 1954, was the offspring of producer David Merrick, who was looking to establish theatrical clout (after four misses). The idea was to recreate the success of South Pacific, and was hoping to enlist Rodgers and Hammerstein to write the score (and from what I understand they were very much interested in doing so). However, Rodgers was opposed to Merrick, and refused to relegate their above the title billing as producers to the novice. Merrick was; however, able to acquire Joshua Logan, who had directed and co-written South Pacific. Original stars Pinza and William Tabbert were also hired. (Mary Martin was considered but went to Peter Pan instead). Twenty year old Florence Henderson would play the title character; Austrian character actor Slezak was Panisse and walked home with that year’s Best Actor in a Musical Tony.

The score was unlike anything Rome had ever been called upon to write. He was known mostly for his politically conscious revues, such as the popular Pins and Needles and the light musical comedy hit Wish You Were Here. Here he attempted his first musical play with considerable success; there are several musical scenes, intelligent use of the reprise and of course, those soaring, romantic leitmotifs. He would write other ambitious scores (The Zulu and the Zayda and the four hour Japanese language Scarlett, the first musical of Gone with the Wind), but none were as romantic or operatic as Fanny. However, the show has fallen into relative obscurity in the last half century, with revivals few and far between. It doesn’t help matters that Steven Suskin’s liner notes in the CD release of the now out of print cast album make frequent reference to all of the show’s inherent flaws.

was selected for the 50th production in the City Center Encores! series, with direction by Marc Bruni and musical direction by Rob Berman. Having known the score, and admiring its range and depth for many years, I was very excited for that opportunity to see and hear the score in a live performance setting. Much to my surprise, I found myself finding the libretto in better shape than I had been led to believe. The script glosses over some character aspects (the victim of condensing six hours of film to 2 1/2 hours onstage) and the lyrics sometimes fail to live up to the lush underlying melodies, but I’ll be damned if this Encores! wasn’t one of their more charming efforts.

George Hearn and Fred Applegate headlined as Cesar and Panisse, respectively. Hearn’s voice has lost some of the power it once had, but was a welcome presence in his first Encores appearance. If he relied more on his prompt script than the actors, he still managed to convey the necessary emotions and nailed plenty of his laughs. He delivered warmly in “Welcome Home” and the understated “Love is a Very Light Thing.” It was Applegate who walked away with the evening, charming, warm, funny; his Panisse was again the heart and soul of the piece and with impressive delivery of his character’s many honest introspective numbers, particularly the charming “Panisse & Son,” the lilting “Never Too Late for Love” and the heartfelt toast “To My Wife.”

Elena Shaddow was in fine voice as Fanny, but she was much stronger in her scenes in the second act after Fanny’s maturation into adulthood. The evening’s surprise was James Snyder. Known mostly for his pop/rock music career, and his Broadway turn in Cry-Baby, Snyder displayed a legitimate tenor of such range and emotional expression that the actor should seriously second guess ever looking back into the rock territory. Priscilla Lopez, last minute replacement for ailing Rondi Reed, was a game Honorine. Michael McCormick, David Patrick Kelly and Jack Doyle were onhand to fill amusing secondary character roles. Ted Sutherland has one of the best singing voices I’ve ever heard on a child actor, but wasn’t as perfect in his line readings.

This was one of the first Encores! presentations to keep all action in the downstage area, and I think that worked to the show’s advantage (especially after missteps with an elevated upstage area in On the Town and Juno). Kudos to director Bruni for his seamless staging; it’s easy to scoff at a show so unapologetically romantic as this one. There are a couple of moments that seem jerry-rigged into the show, particularly the act one belly dance “Shika Shika,” but Bruni paid attention to make those moments part of the dramatic throughline. Roxie pointed out that the Cirque Francais, which I’ve seen dismissed by many, was interpreted in the sense of a dream ballet. The circus, late in the second act, reflects the emotional turmoil of Fanny, as she is pitted between two men, one affluent and affable, the other young and virile (and a sailor).

Berman caressed every one of the score’s nuances from the exceptional Encores orchestra (31 players!) with his usual flair. The trend is to look at the Encores! productions for Broadway transfers, which isn’t entirely fair, as many of the shows presented are supposed to be titles that are considered lost, forgotten or unrevivable. However, in this case, a transfer would be lovely but unlikely – and that’s okay. However, I do wish that the powers that be could raise the funds to record this particular cast, since the original (while lovely) doesn’t contain all the material, and ends with “Be Kind to Your Parents,” a charm song from the middle of the second act that doesn’t come close to reflecting the subtle but effective finale ultimo.

The Encores! season will conclude in April with a presentation of Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ 1964 flop Anyone Can Whistle to celebrate Sondheim’s 80th birthday.