Ah, the movie-turned-into-musical trend. We’ve seen so many on the Great White Way in recent decades. In some cases, this can result in musical theatre aficionados asking “was that really, really necessary?” In other cases even the stodgiest of the musical theatre elite might admit the stage production of some particular Hollywood blockbuster offers an entertaining way to spend any evening even if it’s not going to change the landscape of American musical theatre.
Sister Act falls into the latter category.
Like the 2011 now closed Tony-nominated Broadway production and London’s West End production that preceded it (following two tryouts in US cities), the current US national tour, now playing at the Kennedy Center, offers fans of the 1992 hit movie and musical theatre lovers alike a few positives. There is a chance to laugh a little, revel in some catchy Alan Menken melodies, (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) and marvel at the talent of some powerhouse female vocalists with a flair for comedy.
True, the particulars of the Jerry Zaks-directed show might be quickly forgotten because Cheri and Bill Steinkellner’s book (with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) is largely formulaic, predictable and mostly comprised of corny jokes that poke fun at religion and the gap between those that follow it and those that don’t. Then there’s the fact that the pop, soul, and gospel flavored music numbers tend to blend together after some time, and the production values don’t exactly scream ‘big, splashy Broadway musical.’ Nonetheless, at the end of the performance, one can’t help but leave with a smile and say that it was all pretty much harmless fun.
And really, when a show is about a singing diva that hides out in a convent after witnessing a murder, teaches some nuns to sing, and snags a good man in the process, what’s wrong with that?
As the singer Deloris Van Cartier turned ‘nun’ Sister Mary Clarence, Ta’rea Campbell commands the stage with likeable sass and bubbly energy. Her portrayal of the iconic movie character (played by now stage producer Whoopi Goldberg in the film) is one of the main reasons to give this national tour production a chance. Resisting any temptation to screech to the high heavens in an unpleasant way in any of the production’s many ‘belt-fest’ numbers (“Take Me to Heaven,” “Fabulous Baby” and many more) like some others who have inhabited this role, her strong voice proves adept at precisely navigating numerous vocal runs. Yet, she still delivers every lyric with copious amounts of raw, but purposeful energy and emotion. Even in the book scenes, she makes it impossible not to root for Deloris to succeed and be happy.
As the wary Mother Superior who’s initially none too thrilled that such a sinner has descended upon the convent, Hollis Resnik proves to be a master comedian who can also play a somber, straight-laced religious woman.
This allows the numerous confrontation scenes between Sister Mary Clarence and her character – two women that couldn’t be more different as their initial wardrobe choices (Lez Brotherston) reflect – to be enormously effective. While her decent singing voice is better suited for the more contemplative “Here Within These Walls,” she lets loose and sells “Haven’t Got a Prayer” even if her voice isn’t necessarily up to taking on this more upbeat and ‘belty’ number.
Other ensemble members also have a chance to shine. The women playing the sisters in the convent have comedic chops to spare making the already lyrically funny “It’s Good to Be a Nun” even more delightful to watch. Look for DC theatre regular Florrie Bagel as big-hearted Sister Mary Patrick to make a particular impression here.
As fun as the introductory song is, it’s nothing compared to the ones the nuns get to sing once Sister Mary Clarence teaches them to open up their mouths and just let the sound out. True, “Raise Your Voice,” “Take Me to Heaven (reprise)”, and “Bless Our Show” offer some of Menken’s most irresistible and catchy melodies even on paper, but the women’s commitment to singing them well and never letting the playful energy up even while doing intentionally ridiculous show choir-like choreography (Anthony Van Laast), make them seem even better.
Doug Besterman’s orchestrations, well played with vigor and verve by a talented 12-piece band conducted by Brent-Alan Hoffman, make these catchy ensemble numbers more like ear candy. As the quietest and youngest of the sisters, Mary Robert (played by Ashley Moniz) gets her standout moment as she learns to speak her mind through song (“The Life I Never Led”), the talented band is as integral to the success of that music moment as Moniz, a talented young singer, is herself.
Closes November 10, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $44 – $125
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Design-wise, the production looks surprisingly low budget, especially the set, which is largely uninteresting. Klara Zieglerova’s scenic design does little more than establish where a particular scene is taking place whether it is a music club, a police station, a convent, a bar, or the streets of Philadelphia, etc. It is understandable that touring sets would be scaled down for ease of transport and to ensure ‘fit’ onto the stages of theatres around the country. However, the night I saw the show some of the ‘drops’ did not appear to be in very good condition and wrinkled fabric was the norm rather than exception. Some mishaps in dropping elements of the scenic design also were apparent to even an untrained eye. Natasha Katz’s lighting and Ken Travis’ sound designs, however, prove adequate, but feature little that set them apart.
Design quibbles aside, there’s nothing to suggest this show won’t be a crowd pleaser.
Sister Act. . Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, and Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane.
Based on the Touchstone Motion Picture Sister Act written by Joseph Howard. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Starring Ta’rea Campbell and Hollis Resnik with Melvin Abston, Florrie Bagel, Charles Barksdale, Diane J. Findlay, Chester Gregory, Todd A. Horman, Ashley Moniz, Richard Pruitt, and Ernie Prunenda. Also featuring Gisela Adisa, Brian Cali, Karen Elliott, Jeremy Gaston, Jacqui Graziano, Erin Henry, Brian M. Love, Mary Jo McConnell, Michael Millan, Michelle Rombola, Dawn Rother, Mary Searcy, Jason Simon, Angie Marie Smith, Tricia Tanguy, Kelly E. Waters, Erin Wilson, and Carla Woods. Scenic Design by Klara Zieglerova. Costume Design by Lez Brotherston. Lighting Design by Natasha Katz. Sound Design by Ken Travis. Produced by Whoopi Goldberg, Stage Entertainment, and Troika Entertainment . Presented at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Reviewed by Jennifer Perry.