Despite a slow start and clunky storytelling, it's shamelessly and irresistibly entertaining.
A two-bit music act witnesses a murder, hides out in an-all girl outfit and sexes up the band until the mob catches on. Yes, “Sister Act” is “Some Like It Hot” with wimples. But does it work as a stage tuner? A slow start, clunky storytelling and cumbersome sets mean there’s a whole lot of transcending to do, but with its nuns ‘n’ disco heart on its long, black sleeve and nonstop dynamo discovery Patina Miller in the Whoopi Goldberg role, the cumulative effect is shamelessly and irresistibly entertaining.
Although the show cleaves to the arc of the 1992 movie, anchoring detail has been ditched, and the action — not exactly complex to begin with — simplified. But the removal of, for example, illustrative scenes with the nuns doing community work outside the convent creates more space for the show’s real business: extended musical numbers for the increasingly exuberant sisters.
The major change is the 1970s backdating. There’s a Supremes-esque tone to the opening nightclub number for Diana Ross-haired Deloris Van Cartier (Miller) and her backup singers, but most of the rest of Alan Menken’s new score (aside from the ballads) says goodbye Motown, hello disco.
Out, too, goes any real threat with the downgrading of Deloris’ ex-lover from Mafioso to bling-wearing, Shaft-meets-Curtis Mayfield gangster Shank (Chris Jarman). But what’s lost in danger is made up in music-led laughs as his hitmen are turned into a comedy trio of goons and grunts with spot-on vocals. Together with Jarman, dim-bulb Bones (Nicolas Colicos), Denero (Ivan De Freitas) and TJ (Thomas Goodridge) sound like the Four Tops; separately, they do delicious spoofs of everyone from Barry White to the Stylistics.
But the problem with pastiche is that it irons out a composer’s individual voice. Nun numbers crossing gospel with the Weather Girls raise the roof — Michael Kosarin’s glee-filled vocal arrangements and Doug Besterman’s orchestrations have the zing of authenticity — but the rest of the faintly anodyne score is effective rather than affecting.
That’s particularly true of the ballads, slightly weighed down by Glenn Slater’s unremarkable lyrics. The title number, in which Deloris recognizes the convent’s needs above her own, lands on the couplet “And no one on the earth can change the fact/I’m part of one terrific sister act.” Accurate, but hardly idiosyncratic.
But even if the material lacks flavor, the cast feasts upon it to infectious effect.
Where Goldberg (the show’s lead producer) was grouchy, showering everyone in her way with gutsy disapproval, the glowing Miller (Dionne in the pre-Broadway Central Park run of the current “Hair” revival) smartly dashes in the opposite direction. Sassier, snappier and younger (she’s 24), she has the almost finger-snapping soul of a more contemporary woman amusingly trapped in Lez Brotherston’s eye-wateringly ’70s trash creations.
Miller’s powerhouse vocals, pitched somewhere between Gloria Gaynor and Whitney Houston, and her thrillingly fast vibrato act as the show’s engine. But this is by no means a one-woman effort.
As the put-upon Mother Superior, Sheila Hancock, one of the U.K.’s best-loved actors, does droll like no one else. More knowing than the film’s Maggie Smith, she has a seen-it-all, done-most-of-it air that suggests she’s looking askance at the entire event. She makes mountains out of the molehills of dialogue, the best of which is lifted from the movie.
Hancock is given a run for her money by some of her sisters, especially Julia Sutton as the oldest and most grizzled of them (Mary Wickes onscreen), playing all her lines as if in a boiling rage and winning laughs on every one of them.
The shame of it is that Peter Schneider’s extremely well-cast production is enshrined in sets that create little atmosphere. The Palladium’s stage is famously wide but shallow, creating difficulties for multiple-location shows, but did Klara Zieglerova’s monumental sets have to be so ugly and, on occasion, wobbly?
Major credit goes to Natasha Katz, whose lighting not only smartly diverts the eye from the, well, flatness of the flats but also maintains energy and flow across the lengthy transitions. And she has a field day in the glorious taste wasteland that is the nun’s finale, sending color chases rushing around the stained-glass windows of the newly endowed cathedral.
But even Katz cannot animate some of the staging — notably the chases and fight sequences — and although a bevy of hand-jiving nuns is funny, Anthony Van Laast’s unvarying choreography often lacks liftoff.
The moment when Deloris’ cop-cum-love interest Eddie (Ako Mitchell) is transformed from policeman into Bee Gees-style white-suited crooner and then back again has real comic flair. But even though the wit elsewhere leans toward the labored, the vastly stronger second half is almost ridiculously persuasive. Is “Sister Act” great theatrical art? No. Is it hit entertainment? Oh, yes.