BWW Reviews: SISTER ACT Makes a Joyful Noise
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by Nancy Grossman
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner, Additional Book Material by Douglas Carter Beane; Based on the Touchstone Pictures Motion Picture Sister Act written by Joseph Howard; Scenic Design, Klara Zieglerova; Costume Design, Lez Brotherston; Lighting Design, Natasha Katz; Sound Design, Ken Travis; Music Director, Brent-Alan Huffman; Choreographer, Anthony Van Laast; Director, Jerry Zaks
CAST (in order of appearance): Ta'Rea Campbell, Alysha Deslorieux, Trisha Jeffrey, Kingsley Leggs, Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda, Charles Barksdale, Jason Simon, E. Clayton Cornelious, Melvin Abston, Hollis Resnik, Richard Pruitt, Lael Van Keuren, Florrie Bagel, Diane J. Findlay, Wendy James, Karen Elliott, Michelle Rombola, Brian Calì; ENSEMBLE: Blair Goldberg, Mary Jo McConnell, Ashley Moniz, Angie Marie Smith, Tricia Tanguy, Kelly E. Waters, Dashaun Young
Performances through February 3 at Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Tickets available at Boston Opera House Box Office or through Ticketmaster 1-800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayInBoston.com
Disco, gospel, blues, and funk - you'll think you're back in the 1970s when you hear all of those sounds rocking the house (the Boston Opera House) for the next eight days. Direct from Broadway, the National Tour of the five-time Tony-nominated Sister Act is in town, featuring an original score by award-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, and a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. Based on the Touchstone Pictures 1992 motion picture written by Joseph Howard, the live stage show has an ensemble cast that will have you dancing in the aisles to its variety of musical styles.
Front and center, Ta'Rea Campbell is a winning Deloris Van Cartier, the sassy disco diva wannabe who witnesses her boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Kinglsey Leggs) commit a murder. The police officer who is sweet on her, "Sweaty" Eddie Souther (E. Clayton Cornelious), places her in protective custody and hides her in a convent. Deloris would try the patience of Mother Teresa, so Mother Superior (Hollis Resnick) gets it right when she beseeches God in "Haven't Got a Prayer." Sister Mary Clarence (as Deloris has been dubbed to remain incognito) is a disruptive force of nature in the religious community until the Reverend Mother assigns her to practice with the vocally-challenged choir.
Sister Act is a classic fish out of water tale, but Deloris schools the nuns to sing loud and proud, reminding them that their purpose is to praise the Lord with their songs. Of course, the previously timid, squeaky, and off-key voices become a brassy, harmonious ensemble that draws worshipers to the financially-strapped church and turns up on local television news. Monsignor O'Hara (Richard Pruitt) couldn't be more pleased with the dollars overflowing the collection plate, but Mother Superior is appalled, not only by the sisters shaking their communal booty, but also by the glory going to her nemesis. When the news coverage alerts Curtis to the hideaway of his stool pigeon, endangering everyone's safety, Mother takes the opportunity to have Deloris removed to Eddie's apartment.
The musical numbers are the best thing about Sister Act. Most of them are upbeat, lively, and you can dance to them. And, boy, do they ever dance, thanks to Anthony Van Laast's choreography. It is startling at first to watch nuns doing bump and grind or disco moves, but the cloistered sisters are so innocent that it is all in good fun and in service to the music. In keeping with the show's theme, some of the song titles are inspired: "Take Me to Heaven," "Raise Your Voice," and "Sunday Morning Fever." Curtis and his trio of thugs (Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda, and Charles Barksdale) combine Frankie Valli falsetto with boy group-style backup dance steps that are perfectly executed ("When I Find My Baby"). Even the Monsignor gets into the 70s act with a little channeling of Barry White.
Sister Act is a goofy show, but it has a big heart beating behind all those habits. Once Sister Mary Clarence brings them out of their shells, the choir members embrace the joy in singing. Young mousy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Lael Van Keuren) is transformed by the music and belts out her song of empowerment "The Life I Never Led." The moribund, deposed choir leader Sister Mary Lazarus (Diane J. Findlay) rises to the role of rap master. Sister Mary Patrick (Florrie Bagel) throws body and soul into every number, not even letting up during the curtain call. While it feels superfluous, good cop Eddie has a character song ("I Could Be That Guy") that shows off Cornelious' smooth, rich voice and disco dance stylings, and features a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it costume change.
All touring productions are not created equal, but the Jerry Zaks-directed Sister Act has live musicians under Music Director Brent-Alan Huffman in the pit, and flair, glitz, and talent to spare on the stage. Klara Zieglerova's set is appropriately muted for scenes in the police station and the convent, with bigger, bolder designs for the interior of the church and flashy, cascading silver streamers for Deloris' dream sequence. Costumes by Lez Brotherston follow a parallel line with pedestrian uniforms for the cops and nuns, 70s fashions for Curtis and his boys, and no shortage of glitter when the finale rolls around. Natasha Katz provides effective lighting; unfortunately, the Ken Travis amplified sound design is frequently harsh.
Last but not least, Sister Act leaves us with a message about the benefits of making joyful noise and the power of love to transform. Deloris isn't exactly a sinner when she enters the convent, but she surely ain't a saint. However, by sharing her love of music, she earns the love of the nuns, learns to love God, and discovers the love of a good man. In the end, you can walk out into a cold January night with a song on your lips and all of that sisterly love warming your heart.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus (Cast of Sister Act)