The 1992 Whoopi Goldberg starrer “Sister Act” would seem ideal musicalization fodder, and the Pasadena Playhouse premiere production, transplanting the story to the 1970s, offers crowd-pleasing visual and melodic turns. But the movie’s very essence has been simplified and distorted to the point of character incoherence and dubious taste. Whatever disco-era soul “Sister Act” has gained, it has lost an equal amount of the spiritual variety.
Broad outlines of film and tuner are the same: Having witnessed a murder by her mobster boyfriend, a down-and-out lounge singer is given witness protection in a down-and-out convent, where she turns the traditionalist choir into a contempo ensemble that revitalizes church and community alike. Scenes, lines, even entire performances are carbon copies of the original.
What’s been jettisoned is the heart.
Joseph Howard’s screenplay declared that the religious and secular realms can peacefully co-exist — indeed, that each needs the other to survive. Vain and feckless Deloris Van Cartier learns self-sacrifice out of respect for the nuns’ touching faith. She takes them to the streets to minister and heal, thus teaching the order’s stern head that she was wrong to wall up her charges from the outside world out of fear.
By replacing this subtle theme with a ho-hum conflict between free expression and establishment repressiveness, “Sister Act: The Musical” becomes a generic celebration of self and vaguely defined goodness. Instead of reaching out to help the outside world, these nuns simply co-opt its music and dance. Show sees no middle ground between singing a stodgy hymn and “getting one’s groove on,” so Deloris gives the choir not just a modern lift but songs and moves at which the Village People might balk.
The notion of any religious order’s presenting “Sunday Morning Fever,” the act two opener of booty-shaking and (out-of-period) hip-hop to any audience of the faithful — let alone to the pope — is ludicrous, and it damages the reality and sweetness caught on film by the late Emile Ardolino, whose sensitive directorial hand is much missed here.
Show is convinced that underneath every wimple is a mile-high ‘do, and that every nun is really a free spirit needing just a nudge to don purple disco boots. Vocations are explained away as a vision of the Virgin Mary in cereal, the slimming appeal of a habit or a preference for disengagement. In her “Life I Never Led” number, young Sister Mary Robert (Beth Malone) gives the game away in Glenn Slater’s lyric: “I won’t go on playing dead.” Hard to miss the implication that a simply devout nun is somehow in need of resuscitation.
Meanwhile, show evidences a leering interest in the sexuality of female religious figures, from a comedy number by hoodlums about persuading a “Lady in the Long Black Dress” to kick the habit, to a biker bar scene in which Mary Robert is sniffed at, manhandled and thrown around as a snarling sister (Audrie Neenan) warns pole dancers they’re “Goin’ to Hell” while she wards off vampires with a improvised cross of cue sticks.
Mother Superior (Elizabeth Ward Land) is reduced to a stick-figure martinet, while Deloris (Dawnn Lewis) is drawn at a witless extreme (must she spell dead d-e-d?). Both actresses sing beautifully but are hamstrung, their interactions merely occasions for pique and sitcomish one-liners that land with a thud. Mutual face slaps, Mother’s boozing and Deloris’ characterization of the nun as “Hitler in a smock” are particularly shocking, not because they ring true but because they’re so unwarranted.
Aud’s best bet is simply not to listen to what’s being said or sung — easy enough to do, given show’s overmiking — and revel in Alan Menken’s talent for melodies that attract on first hearing, complemented by Doug Besterman’s spot-on disco-era orchestrations (how come no wacka-wacka guitar, though?).
An amusing period-specific blend of splashy and tacky marks David Potts’ sets, on which Donald Holder’s lighting changes colors like a mood ring.
Marguerite Derricks’ spirited choreography is also a pleasure, assuming one can enjoy, tolerate or ignore nuns’ spanking their booty in Garry Lennon’s glitter gear. Helmer Peter Schneider achieves some fluidity of overlapping scenes, though his staging gets messier the more crowded the stage becomes.
The men come off well. Harrison White maintains believable menace as Deloris’ murderous lover while sporting a more outrageous Super Fly outfit in each appearance. His three goons (Melvin Abston, Danny Stiles, Dan Domenech) sketch out marvelously individualized personalities.
David Jennings’ Urkel-ish cop has a fine transformative song in “I Could Be That Guy,” and Henry Polic II’s monsignor brings dignity where it’s needed.
All take to the glitter stage in the finale, including Reverend Mother (in this dramaturgy, a couple of drinks is all it takes for an uptight square to see the light), singing of God as a “Mirror Ball,” i.e., a sheer reflection of oneself. Since no character has been brought to the end of any journey, spiritual or otherwise, the number is curiously cold and unmoving. We may never know the heights of emotional resonance a musical “Sister Act” might attain if it simply kept the faith.