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.