SISTER ACT: The Musical – Review

August 7, 2010

There’s a joyful noise at London’s Palladium Theatre, and fortunately, it’s heading towards Broadway in 2011. SISTER ACT: The Musical is one of those feel-good times that doesn’t pretend to be anything special but ultimately is. The show is running through October in London, and producer Whoopi Goldberg is going to be taking over the role of Mother Superior for a few weeks in August. I’d like to have seen that.

The show’s book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner who have written hit television shows like Cheers, and it’s based on the original film by Joseph Howard (the pseudonym for a group of writers that includes Paul Rudnick and Carrie Fischer among others) and has the same positive energy. Alan Menken’s music is incredible. His adapted gospel numbers have all of the same incredible energy as the music in the film and really showcase the talents of the company of sisters. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are, for the most part good. However, his lyrics for the two songs for Shank and his “crew” are a bit forced and get stale quickly. They are jokes that go on for too long.

The story of the musical is very close to the film about a disco club singer, Delores Van Cartier (Patina Miller – All My Children), who witnesses her boyfriend Shank (Simon Webbe – of the band Blue) murder someone. She escapes and is placed in protective custody in a failing convent/church in Philadelphia run by a no-nonsense Mother Superior (Sheila Hancock – a West End legend). Delores has trouble adjusting, but when she takes on the task of teaching the pitiful choir to sing, she and they shine.

The only place this musical falls a bit flat is when it’s not about the sisters. The material for Shank and his henchmen (Nicolas Colicos, Ivan De Freitas, and Thomas Goodridge) is just not special enough to match the exuberance and special quality of extended sequences of the sisters learning to sing and performing. In fact, one song for the trio, “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” is pretty much cheap humor and out of place.

Patina Miller is a delight as Delores, and I hope that she’ll be moving to New York with the production. The three main sisters, Sister Mary Patrick (Claire Greenway who matches all of the wonder of the film’s Kathy Najimy beautifully), the indomitable Mary Lazarus (Jacqueline Clarke who is as feisty as the film’s Mary Wickes), and the repressed Mary Robert (Katie Rowley Jones) who finds her voice and her confidence, are all adorable as are all of the sisters. This is one time that I think the choice to cast types parallel to the film worked because they are not merely imitating the originals; they are originals themselves.

This is one of those musicals where one walks out of the theatre with an aching face from smiling so much. Once again, there’s no pretence here. This show is not claiming that it is high art or meaningful theatre; it’s a good time in the mold of MAMA MIA! One has solid characters for whom one can root, and even though the ending is predictable, especially after watching and knowing the film, it’s still gloriously happy.

Menken’s score soars during those wonderful numbers for the sisters. From the extended singing lesson lead by Miller in “Raise Your Voice” through “Take Me to Heaven,” “Sunday Morning Fever,” and the finale, “Spread the Love Around,” the energy builds and sweeps the audience along to its joyous conclusion. Fortunately, the cast recording on First Night Records captures all of this beautifully. Alan Menken is surely one of the more important writers we have in musical theatre today, and he shows why here. Even in those songs that don’t quite work for Shank and the henchmen, the music is sound.

The physical production in London is colorful and appealing. The sets by Klara Zieglerova seamlessly move the action along and offer some stunning visuals as the church is reborn. I particularly loved the 20 foot tall “disco Madonna.” Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is fitting here, and he has done an excellent job of letting the charming sisters’ lights shine in their numbers.

SISTER ACT - Patina Miller and Sisters

SISTER ACT: The Musical is opening in Germany this fall and is scheduled to open in New York next spring. If it is received half as well as it has been in London, it will be the ticket to get.

 

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