It's time to stop mocking Mormons. And high time to have fun with Roman Catholics.
"Sister Act" — the crowd-pleasing musical that rhymes "chicks" with "crucifix" — opened Wednesday at the Broadway Theatre, having imported its dancing nuns from a well-received stint in London.
Calibrated to be frothy, giggly and yet often poignant, the Jerry Zaks-directed musical is based on the 1992 movie of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg, who is now producing. This is a musical that hits all the right spots, achieving something close to Broadway grace.
Goldberg's old part, that of the wannabe-nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier, is played to perfection by newcomer Patina Miller, whose voice, dancing and charm are, ahem, heavenly. "Yeah, I'm fabulous, baby!" she sings in an early song, the perfect way to announce this wonderful new talent. "Feast your eyes — can't disguise/my star quality!"
It helps that the musical has great original tunes by songwriter Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater that skitters from Motown, to soul and funk, to disco and even a little jokey Barry White. Menken and Slater, who also teamed up for "The Little Mermaid," know perfectly how to switch up the mood and tempo. (See how their "Take Me to Heaven" transforms from a Donna Summer-like number at the beginning to a religious hymn by the end.)
For its trip from the West End, "Sister Act" has gained some script tweaking, some song changes and a rehauled cast, most especially with Victoria Clark bringing depth to her role as the grumpy Mother Superior. Zaks took over direction duties and playwright Douglas Carter Beane massaged the story by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. The action has shifted from the West Coast in the movie to the '70s of Philadelphia, which allows for the introduction of soul, in more ways than one.
The plot is faithful to the movie: A nightclub singer accidentally witnesses a murder by her crime boss lover and flees to a convent to hide. The stuffy nuns come alive as she teaches them razzle-dazzle and rhythm — "Shake it like you're Mary Magdalene" — and she in turn learns the value of sisterhood and self-sacrifice.
Does it seem like Broadway musicals are having a lot of jokes at the expense of religions this season, what with "The Book of Mormon" and now "Sister Act"? Not to worry: Both these shows ultimately champion belief, even if they tweak what might be considered the external silliness of faiths.
Despite the uplifting message, the Vatican will be unlikely to endorse "Sister Act," even if the pope himself does make an appearance — in reality, conductor Michael Kosarin in holy vestments.
The sets by Klara Zieglerova whiz about the stage — church, convent dining room, bar, stained glass panels, a huge statue of Mary and a police station — as if God himself was moving them. Funny choreography in a show like this is crucial and Anthony Van Laast has clearly relished putting doughy-looking women in wimples through their Vegas-style paces. There's also a farcical chase that uses all of the stage.
He has been helped by Lez Brotherston's costumes which upgrade the nuns' black-and-white habits with a liberal dose of sparkles and rhinestones. The increasing lush, razzle-dazzle outfits of the nuns and priests is a running joke as Deloris' influence in the convent grows. But a note of warning: If the white suit John Travolta wore in "Saturday Night Fever" still haunts you, this show may trigger flashbacks.
Two songs from the London production, including the gospel-raunchy "Do the Sacred Mass," were cut, which is probably a good thing for believers and nonbelievers alike. Two songs have been added, including "Haven't Got a Prayer" for Clark, who nails it.
Miller is the only one remaining from the London cast and new director Zaks proves one of his first smart moves was to keep this talented woman. She and Clark manage to add depth — exploring how people handle change, should religions keep the modern world at bay and is fame more important than friendship — to what could be just a silly comedy.
They are aided by solid turns by Chester Gregory (who plays Sweaty Eddie and has delicious fun with "I Could Be That Guy"), Kingsley Leggs (the crime boss who sings the chilling love song "When I Find My Baby"), and Marla Mindelle as a novice nun who belts out the melancholic "The Life I Never Led"). Fred Applegate as the monsignor is drolly funny.
In a word, the whole thing is rather divine.
Victoria Clark is nun too happy to see Patina Miller in her convent.
A blessed event has landed on Broadway. "Sister Act," which opened last night, is a feel-good crowd-pleaser worth celebrating. Here are 10 reasons to sing its praises:
1 The musical takes a good 1992 big-screen comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, one of the show’s producers, and makes it better. It doesn't break new ground and hews close to the film, but what it does, it does very well. Among the shrewd changes — transplanting the plot from Reno, Nev., to Philadelphia in the 1970s.
2 Patina Miller, as Delores Van Cartier, the Donna Summer wanna-be taking refuge in a church from her mobster boyfriend, is full of funk and spunk and has a voice that’ll knock you off your feet. Last seen in the Central Park version of "Hair," Miller lives up to Dolores’ hymn to herself, "Fabulous, Baby!"
3 The score by multi-Oscar winner Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), inspired by the sound of Philadelphia, flows with blues, soul and disco. It’s infectious, inviting and has take-home tunes. One song urges, "Take Me to Heaven." Sign me up.
4 The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner ("Cheers"), which has been pumped up and polished by the whacked wit of Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu”), has more snap than a clutch of nuns with clickers. Told she must hide in a convent and disguise herself as a nun, Dolores cracks: "You mean I gotta go incognegro?"
5 Jerry Zaks' direction is swift, efficient and smart. He joined the show after the London production ended a 16-month run in October. The show takes off like a shot, and it keeps on purring from one happy moment to the next.
6 Tony winner Victoria Clark ("The Light in the Piazza") shows off her wide range of emotions and her lovely voice while filling out the role of the conflicted mother superior. Chester Gregory, as a cop besotted with Dolores, charms completely with "I Could Be That Guy," a smoky fantasy ballad dedicated to the girl he loves. As a self-doubting postulant, Marla Mindelle showcases her powerful pipes in the rousing "The Life I Never Led." Watch out for this girl.
7 The supporting cast all get breakout moments, including Kingsley Leggs as the trigger-happy hood Curtis, and John Treacy Egan, Ceasar Samayoa and Desmond Green as his three goons. Sarah Bolt and Audrie Neenan are good fun as two sisters — one sweet, one sour — who are clear winks to the actresses who played the parts in the movie.
8 A chorus of dancing nuns goes from basic black-and-white to sequins and sparkles and moves in a high-stepping chorus line, courtesy of choreographer Anthony Van Laast and costumer Lez Brotherston.
9 Klara Zieglerova's sets glide across the stage, taking the story from the seamy side of Philly to a police station and dive bar to a church that’s desperately down on its luck before Dolores turns things around by making stars out of the choir. The reliable Natasha Katz bathes it all in brilliant lights.
10 Even the towering statue of the blessed Madonna gets a glittering moment in the spotlight. Amen.
And fabulous, baby!
Big, glitzy numbers are the toast of Broadway musicals. The only thing better? Big, glitzy numbers . . . with nuns! “Sister Act” has plenty of both — and it’s one of the season’s happiest surprises.
First, let’s clear up some misconceptions. Whoopi Goldberg, the star of the 1992 hit movie, isn’t onstage: She’s merely a producer here. But the show’s lead, Patina Miller, is a tornado-like belter with fine comic timing. We’ll hear from her again come Tony time.
And while the flick riffed on oldies like “My Guy,” this “Sister Act” isn’t a jukebox musical. Instead, it boasts catchy new songs by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” among a gazillion others) and lyricist Glenn Slater.
It’s a net gain, especially since the story’s been moved from contemporary Reno to 1978 Philadelphia, allowing the music to go wild with the decade’s styles.
Menken evokes the lush, funky sound of Philly soul without falling into mere pastiche: “When I Find My Baby” starts off like bedroom R&B before the lyrics take a hilarious turn. “Take Me to Heaven” and “Spread the Love Around” bloom into full-throttle disco epics, the latter building up to an ecstatic finale.
Setting aside, the plot’s the same: After seeing her gangster boyfriend (Kingsley Leggs) whack an informant, struggling songbird Deloris Van Cartier (Miller) hides out in a local church run by nuns. Defying the mother superior — Victoria Clark, having a blast after the dramatic exertions of “The Light in the Piazza” — Deloris shapes the nuns’ off-key choir into a fierce ensemble.
Their numbers, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast (“Mamma Mia!”), could be habit-forming.
By all accounts, “Sister Act” has been tightened since its London premiere in ’09. Jerry Zaks took over as director, and Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu”) revamped Bill and Cheri Steinkellner’s book — his stamp is all over jokes such as the one about “two bachelors who deal in antiques” wanting to buy the bankrupt church.
Aside from a lull in the second act, the show moves at a good clip, and pushes every imaginable button: Old lady rapping? Reliable. Old nun rapping? Off the charts!
Every part is impeccably cast. Clark’s abbess could easily have handled another solo, and you wish Chester Gregory, late of “Dreamgirls” at the Apollo, could showboat even more as a cop crushed out on Deloris.
But then “Sister Act” would go on for five hours, and it’s already packed with goodies. To which we say: Amen!
When the wimples start quivering, the pinched mouths break into sunbeam smiles, and the nuns start rocking to raise the Gothic rafters, all’s right in the kingdom of musical comedy at “Sister Act.” Who could resist the vision of a stage full of saintly sisters flaring their gams in unison like the Rockettes, or swiveling their hips, Supremes style, to the silken beat of an R&B tune? Presumably nobody in the audience at the Broadway Theater, where this latest stage adaptation of a hit movie opened on Wednesday night.
I wish I could report that the singing nuns from the Church of Philly Soul are giving those perky Mormons in Africa a run for their money in the unholy hilarity department. But when the jubilant choral numbers subside, as inevitably they must, “Sister Act” slumps back into bland musical-theater grooves and mostly lacks the light of invigorating inspiration.
Based on the movie starring Whoopi Goldberg as a club singer forced to smother her sequined soul beneath a nun’s habit after she witnesses a murder, “Sister Act” has been seen in several previous incarnations, most successfully in London. This reworked version is directed by a veteran Broadway specialist in tracking laughs, Jerry Zaks, and features a seasoning of new gags supplied by the gifted comic playwright Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed,” “Xanadu”).
Despite the ministrations of these shtickmeisters the show remains tame, innocuous and frankly a little dull. As adapted by the book writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and scored by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), this sentimental story of a bad girl showing the good sisters how to get down has all the depth of a communion wafer, and possibly a little less bite.
Patina Miller, recreating her starring performance from the West End production, has a radiant presence and a strong voice with a tangy timbre. As Deloris Van Cartier, a would-be disco diva in 1970s Philly who goes on the lam when the bullets start flying, she truly comes into her own when Deloris sheds her purse full of wisecracks and begins bonding with the friendly nuns cowed by the church’s stern mother superior, played by Victoria Clark.
For even when Deloris is shimmying in a leopard miniskirt in the show’s opening number, Ms. Miller somehow exudes sweetness and sincerity. This makes the heroine’s transition from sassy sinner to sympathetic musical instructor less outlandishly funny than it was in the movie. (Ms. Goldberg, who is a producer of the Broadway production, is an earthier comedienne.) Still, when she is slashing away at the sky with her arms, reaching for heavenly inspiration as she exhorts her flock of gawky nuns to shed their inhibitions and let the spirit put their hips in motion, Ms. Miller is a delight to watch.
Deloris’s converts to the cause are played with genial comic finesse by Sarah Bolt as the jolly Sister Mary Patrick; Marla Mindelle as the sweetly mousy postulant Mary Robert; and the particularly funny Audrie Neenan as the puckered-up, sarcastic Sister Mary Lazarus. Ms. Clark, a Tony winner for her performance in “The Light in the Piazza,” has a lot more vocal heft under that habit than is strictly necessary for her role, which mostly consists of looking on disapprovingly as Deloris charms the nuns into rebelling against the mother superior’s strictures. But she gives a modest, rewardingly human-scaled performance.
Mr. Menken, who wrote the lustrous period-pop score for “Little Shop of Horrors” (with the lyricist Howard Ashman), is a skillful interpreter of the Philadelphia sound. And he and Mr. Slater supply dutiful versions of the musical-theater sacraments: comic numbers for the club owner, Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), and his henchmen; a romantic Lou Rawls-style groove for Chester Gregory as Deloris’s adorer and protector, the policeman assigned to guard her; and climactic soul-baring ballads for Deloris and the mother superior, and Sister Mary Robert too, in which each questions the tenets of her personal faith.
But with the exception of a couple of those roof raisers, the songs in “Sister Act” are more serviceable than memorable. Maybe that’s not so surprising given the predictable plot proceeding mechanically along two suspense-free tracks: Will Deloris escape the bloodthirsty Curtis and his minions? And will her tutelage of the singing nuns help save the church from being sold to a couple of bachelor antiques dealers? (That gag is one of Mr. Beane’s gay-friendly interpolations into the new production.)
The musical’s draggy conventionality lifts only when the sisters break out into their rousing gospel numbers, which grow more lavish as the evening proceeds, and the church is, for all intents and purposes, transmogrified into a fabulous reproduction of the old Limelight, the Manhattan nightclub housed in a former church in the 1980s. (It now contains a bouquet of high-end boutiques, possibly what Mr. Beane’s joke about those antiques dealers was alluding to.)
The towering stained-glass walls pulsate like a dance floor in hot colors (the sets are by Klara Zieglerova) as the nuns give voice to their discovery that piety does not necessarily preclude an indulgence in vocal pyrotechnics and synchronized dance routines (choreographed buoyantly by Anthony Van Laast). And for these holy-rolling hootenannys the nuns are naturally decked out in serious bling, reportedly adorned by 7,000 Swarovski crystals.
Top that, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”! Between the gaudy parade of eye-poppingly shiny garb in “Sister Act” (by Lez Brotherston) and the jamboree of outlandish drag in “Priscilla,” the amount of glittery costuming on Broadway has perhaps reached a historic peak. I would not be surprised to hear that the fashion world has been rocked by an alarming shortage of sequins. Next season we may have to start rationing.
To say that "Sister Act" lacks plot development is probably beside the point. To people who love this show (and, judging from audience reaction at the performance I attended, that will be many), cheerful entertainment is the point.
Make that breathlessly cheerful. Relentlessly cheerful. In this corner, OK, make that mindlessly, bafflingly, springtime-for-Hitler-quality cheerful. Whoopi Goldberg is the hard-driving show's lead producer, but the musical has none of the heart, logic or genuine emotional stakes of her 1992 movie comedy.
What this one has is lots of glitz, original songs instead of jukebox hits and plenty of talent, most conspicuously Patina Miller in a breakthrough Broadway debut. She plays Deloris Van Cartier (Goldberg's screen role), the two-bit disco diva hiding from the mob in a cloistered convent. Miller, a holdover from the earlier London version, has a big, easygoing, vibrato-tinged voice and an insouciance that makes her character's dumbness (she expects a Jacuzzi in the convent . . . really?) almost charming.
Like the rest of director Jerry Zaks' flashy production, Deloris is a cartoon, not a person, which means she bounces back from scary trouble with a bop and a grin. This also means she doesn't even have to work to win over the sheltered nuns and teach them to, uh, boogie.
Clearly, these goofy, jolly nuns were just waiting for someone to put them in sparkly habits, to liberate them from the drudgery of piety and crises in vocal pitch. Except for Mother Superior (the authentically superior Victoria Clark), the women quickly find their harmony, praising "the sweet sensation of extreme self-flagellation" and describing holy wafers as a "moral high colonic."
In their own way, Glenn Slater's lyrics may be as irreverent as anything in "The Book of Mormon." In panting gospel-love to Jesus, nuns wail, "I'll give you all I've got 'cause nothin's as hot as when you groove with me. Ooo. Ah. Ah." Yes, ooo, ah, ah.
Composer Alan Menken has written a nonstop hit parade of happy disco and Barry White-infused soul. But each one is big enough for a finale. Nothing builds to the dramatic climax. The winking monsignor describes people who want to buy the church as "two bachelors who deal in antiques." He says the line three, maybe four times, lest we miss the nuance.
Everyone around me seemed to be having grand time. Wish I were there.
History has taught us that there are few subjects as polarizing as religion. But a few current Broadway productions suggest otherwise.
This season's two most winning new musicals to date both put faith in the forefront with a mixture of satire and sweetness that can be embraced by the pious and non-believers alike.
The latest entry, Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy (*** 1/2 out of four), may be less giddily profane, and thought-provoking, than The Book of Mormon, but it has its own distinct and surprising charms.
Based on the 1992 film, Sister Act, which opened Wednesday at the Broadway Theatre, follows the adventures of a decidedly secular woman who takes refuge in a convent.
On screen, Whoopi Goldberg played Deloris Van Cartier, a Reno lounge singer forced to pose as a nun to elude a murderous boyfriend. After some predictable awkwardness, our heroine found her footing by leading the choir, having her sisters give praise in a funkier fashion that rattled their Mother Superior but brought fame to their church.
The Broadway musical cannily relocates Deloris to 1978 Philadelphia, home to the lush, sensuous breed of R&B that had by that time paved the way for the disco movement. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater provide original tunes that nod cheekily, but with genuine affection, to that pop era while also propelling the story with a style and exuberance specific to well-crafted musical theater.
Librettists Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, enlisting additional material from Douglas Carter Beane, adapt the screenplay with disarming wryness. It helps that the nimble veteran Jerry Zaks directs, and that his cast includes such reliable entertainers as Victoria Clark, pitch-perfect as the prickly but warmhearted Mother Superior, and Fred Applegate, as the more funk-friendly monsignor.
Patina Miller is a credible, endearing leading lady, giving this Deloris the right mix of sugar and spice. Chester Gregory is similarly likable as the police officer who becomes her love interest, while Sarah Bolt and Marla Mindelle lend more goofy humor and pluck as the habited Deloris' sisters in arms.
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.