Broadway Theatre, NYC
Several trends were in evidence during the recently concluded 2010-2011 theater season. First, we continued to see new musicals based on hit motion pictures -- three among this season's newcomers. Musical comedy continues its comeback; at least three of the new musicals, along with both musical revivals, were shows that emphasized the laughs and spirit of old-fashioned musical comedy. Another trend, at least for me, was that the new musicals, while entertaining and often fun, did not rise to the level of greatness.
All three of these trends apply to Sister Act, the latest new musical based on a hit movie.
The 1992 movie starred Whoopi Goldberg, who is one of the producers of the stage version, now playing at the Broadway Theatre. Sister Act fits right into the 2010-2011 season; it is a high-spirited, amiable crowd-pleaser, with enough very funny lines and some energetic musical numbers. It is another one of those solid musicals that is certainly entertaining, but not inspired. There is nothing wrong with that, and Sister Act unquestionably will provide an evening of genial entertainment to a lot of theatergoers.
Sister Act's opening scenes feature a good deal of exposition. We meet aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier and watch as she witnesses her boyfriend commit a murder, seeks the help of a policeman, and winds up in hiding at a monastery. Of course, Deloris clashes with the Mother Superior. The musical picks up when Deloris is asked to work with the monastery's chorus of nuns; with Deloris's help, the nuns find their voices, and the resulting song, "Raise Your Voice," is a delight, followed by another roof-raiser by the nuns, "Take Me to Heaven."
It is in these moments where Sister Act is at its rousing best. But when the chorus is not making its magic, the show intermittently stumbles, and my mind wandered occasionally. That said, the musical is entertaining and rises to the occasion enough to make for an engaging evening. While I wish Deloris’s character arc were a bit better developed, it nevertheless gives the story a core around which to build, and the show’s final scenes are very good and even touching.
The creators have all done a professional job in putting the musical together. The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by noted playwright Douglas Carter Beane, has some big laughs and tells the story effectively. The score by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, is attractive, featuring a mix of gospel, blues, and disco in its musical numbers. It definitely has a Motown sound, and it works for this story. Jerry Zaks's direction keeps the show moving and has a comic touch.
As Deloris, Patina Miller gives a terrific, star performance. Her singing is strong, and she brings flair, style, and presence to the role. She has been nominated for a Tony for her performance and it will likely come down to Ms. Miller or Sutton Foster for the award. Previous Tony winner Victoria Clark is always a pleasure to watch, and she is a dignified and at times exasperated Mother Superior. Marla Mindelle shines as one of the young nuns and delivers with her big number, "The Life I Never Led." Able support also comes from Broadway veterans including Kingsley Leggs, Fred Applegate, Sarah Bolt, and Chester Gregory, who, as the policeman, also has a love interest in Deloris.
While I might wish that Sister Act were more thrilling and exhilarating, I nevertheless found it to be engaging and highly enjoyable. If the rest of the show does not quite match the high points when Patina Miller and the nuns raise their voices in such a delightful manner, those chorus moments elevate the show enough to carry the evening along to a satisfying conclusion.