'Sister Act'

Whoopi Goldberg looms large over the new musical comedy "Sister Act," and that's part of the problem.

Whoopi Goldberg looms large over the new musical comedy “Sister Act,” and that’s part of the problem. While she co-produced, Goldberg isn’t onstage, and the outsized sense of hilarity mixed with humanity she brought to the 1992 motion picture is sorely missed. Patina Miller makes an altogether impressive Broadway debut as diva-on-the-run Deloris Van Cartier, singing up a veritable storm, but the decision to plaster Goldberg’s name on numerous signs outside the theater raises comparisons that flatter neither Miller nor this garish production.

New tuner has various assets that place it comfortably in the feel-good entertainment category, and might have launched it to the top last season or even three months ago. But timing is everything. “Sister Act” comes in on the heels of a handful of musicals, including another disco-beat film adaptation (“Priscilla Queen of the Desert”), and comparisons are not favorable.

The tale of a failed singer hiding from her mobster boyfriend in a nunnery has been moved back to 1978, presumably to allow for that disco sound. Composer Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) demonstrates his usual flair for tuneful pop, but there is little that grabs you here, and he isn’t helped by Glenn Slater lyrics like “Life is grim/filled with scandal to the brim/there may be room for Him.”

Joseph Howard’s screenplay has been simplified and vulgarized. While the film had believable if humorous nuns, here the gals seem all too eager for the chance to shake their booty in hot, sequined habits, and Monsignor O’Hara (Fred Applegate) has been transformed into a Vegas lounge type. What’s more, many of the jokes — be they from librettists Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (“Cheers”) or book doctor Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu”) — are cheesy. One yuk, about “bachelors who deal in antiques,” is repeated three times to diminishing returns, and the nuns’ lingo is peppered with Yiddishisms in search of laughs.

Miller, whose biggest local credit was the Melba Moore role in the 2008 Shakespeare in the Park production of “Hair,” is indeed a find. But she can’t quite manage to make the show seem better than it is. Victoria Clark (“The Light in the Piazza”) shares top billing as the Mother Superior, a role that showcases her comic talents but gives her little else to do.

Sarah Bolt and Marla Mindelle provide rays of entertainment as friendly nun and nervous postulant, respectively; Chester Gregory is likable as Eddie, the cop who arranges Deloris’ stay; and John Treacy Egan and Demond Green provide laughs as small-fry criminals (despite being saddled with a “how to seduce a nun” song).

Physical production is at its best in Klara Zieglerova’s chapel, where topnotch lighting designer Natasha Katz gets to play with the stained glass. Lez Brotherston’s outfits, if too flashy to be believed, do make for a delectable costume gag in the first act.

After a rocky gestation that included a 17-month West End run and the recent addition of Beane and replacement director Jerry Zaks, the Broadway version of “Sister Act” is glossy, but seems like a worn set of tires repatched too often. At one point in the second act, the gals run in with newspaper reviews of their latest mass. (Opening night reviews for a Sunday mass?) The most crotchety old nun waves her copy of Daily Variety, ecstatically proclaiming the headline “Crix Pix Crucifix Shticks.” Nice try, but no sale.

Sister Act

Broadway; 1,487 seats; $126.50 top

Production

A Whoopi Goldberg and Stage Entertainment (in association with The Shubert Organization and Disney Theatrical Productions) presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane, based on the Touchstone picture written by Joseph Howard. Directed by Jerry Zaks, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. Music direction, Brent-Alan Huffman.

Creative

Sets, Klara Zieglerova; costumes, Les Brotherston; lights, Natasha Katz; sound, John Shivers; hair and wig, David Brian Brown; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; musical supervision, vocal and incidental arrangements, Michael Kosarin; dance arrangements, Mark Hummel; original production developed in association with Peter Schneider and Michael Reno; production stage manager, Steven Beckler. Opened Apr. 20, 2011, reviewed Apr. 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Deloris Van Cartier - Patina Miller
Curtis Jackson - Kingsley Leggs
Joey - John Treacy
Egan Pablo - Caesar Samayoa
TJ - Demond Green
Eddie Souther - Chester Gregory
Mother Superior - Victoria Clark
Monsignor O'Hara - Fred Applegate
Sister Mary Robert - Marla Mindelle
Sister Mary Patrick - Sarah Bolt
Sister Mary Lazarus - Audrie Neenan
With: Jennifer Allen, Charl Brown, Christina DeCicco, Holly Davis, Madeleine Doherty, Alan H. Green, Blake Hammond, Wendy James, Kevin Ligon, Marissa Perry, Corbin Reid, Rashidra Scott, Jennifer Simard, Lael Van Keuren, Roberta B. Wall, Alena Watters

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