By Philip Pearce
LOCAL THEATER COMPANIES are busy unwrapping family-friendly holiday shows like Pacific Rep’s loud, lively new stage musical version of Sister Act. The cheers and applause of an enthusiastic first Sunday matinee audience suggest it will be well-received between now and December 18th.
If you’ve forgotten the 1992 hit movie, it’s all about an ambitious cafe singer named Deloris Van Cartier who catches her mobster boyfriend gunning down a gangland enemy and has to be put under witness-protection, wimple and all, in a Catholic convent.
Just about everything good in Sister Act depends on the artful casting of a contrasting pair of lead actresses. PacRep has done the trick with the endearing and gifted Jalene Goodwin camping it up as the fugitive chanteuse, and Lavonne Rae Andrews starchy but furtively sympathetic as the Reverend Mother forced to house and control this uncontrollable newcomer, “Here Within These Walls.”
It’s a show that coasts slickly along on two major formulas for Broadway commercial success. The First says that ever since Sound of Music and Nunsense, nuns are fun—and PacRep’s cloister-load are surefire laugh riots. There’s Donna Federico, as Sister Mary Lazarus, the ever-hopeful directress of a chronically off-key convent choir. There’s Seaneen Sullinger, all irrepressible bubble-and-squeak as bouncing Sister Mary Patrick. There’s Bri Slama, prim and buttoned up but just waiting to bust out of her cocoon in the role of cautious Postulant Mary Robert. Like the rest of the sisters, these three start the evening hiding behind starched habits and convent pecking-order. But once Deloris hits the enclosure, they sing loud and harmoniously, dance tirelessly, frolic and doo-wop and chatter a whole heck of a lot more than any members of a religious order I’ve met and I’ve met a lively few. In a second-act Mass honoring Pope John Paul, who puts in a brief spotlit-appearance in the gallery of the Golden Bough Playhouse, they even wear gold lame scapulars over their wimples. It’s that over-the-top kind of show and the audience loved it.
A Second formula for Broadway success says if it scored big on the screen it’ll score even bigger if you tune it up for the stage. Here, the promoters of Sister Act the Musical might profitably have looked at the lackluster fate of the stage versions of State Fair or Meet Me in St. Louis. With Sister Act, major re-writes, first in the West End, then more in New York, may have tightened up the plot and cut away excess baggage, but they didn’t really break any fresh creative ground. In the 1992 Disney film, what happened had a measure of convincing character development and some honest human feeling. Cheri and Bill Steinkellner’s stage script tends toward a commercial glibness that flattens the relationships and sets up comic-strip situations that supply predictable but shallow laughs.
Musically, the stage-version follows one important piece of wistful joking in the film. There Whoopie Goldberg as Deloris leads her nightclub backup group in a nice breezy love ballad called “My Guy,” which Deloris later reworks as a convent choir-special renamed “My God.” It’s a memorable and interesting way of underscoring her transition to a new way of life. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater attempt the same thing on stage with a number called “Take Me to Heaven.” Jalene Goodman and a pair of hilarious blonde vocal colleagues played by Jill Miller and Gracie Navaille put the song over with plenty of oomph and sparkle and, sure enough, the convent choir reprises it with the same lyrics. But it’s just not nearly as good a song as “My Guy/My God.” Like the score as a whole, it does its job of characterizing the singers and forwarding the plot at a particular point in the action. But I doubt if the day after anyone sees the show they’ll be able to name, let alone sing, any of its musical numbers.
What wins out are the performances director Susanne Burns and musical director Desma Johnson elicit from the big committed cast. Adam J. Saucedo sings and acts delightfully as a cop named Eddie with a self-image problem who rescues Deloris from the clutches of Otis Goodwin’s gangster-nemesis Curtis Jackson. As Monsignor O’Hara, James Brady does some funny stuff in a mistaken identity crisis inside a confessional booth with Deloris and the Reverend Mother. He then blossoms out avariciously into a clerical imitation of a smarmy night club MC while (if I got it right) celebrating a High Mass. Sister Act has the brash sparkle and breakneck pace of a show that’s been artfully organized to supply holiday fun and meet familiar holiday expectations.