Sister Act : The Musical

October 24, 2013

There’s more songs and less soul in Sister Act: The Musical running at the Grand Canal Theatre until Saturday 7th of January. That’s not just a comment on it’s backdating the tale to the 1970s, when disco was melting down the dance floors and Donna Summer was taking the place of Diana Ross in the heart of Deloris Van Cartier (Cynthia Erivo). Rather, its the sad condemnation of this selling out of a great comedy series for a cheap buck. The memory of its source hangs about the stage like a much cherished first wife whose marital bed has been soiled by this imposter, who inspite of pulling much of the same moves, only further highlights how untrue her intentions are.

Familiarity rather than invention is the order of the day in this tale of a second rate showgirl (reworked here as a disco dolly) hiding out in a convent after she walks in on her mobster boyfriend sending his chauffeur into an eternal disco nap. She clashes with the Mother Superior, pumices up the convent choir and preforms for the Pope, reversing the fortunes of the ailing church, sending her man down and saving her soul in the process.

The film’s larger than life characters are traced onto the stage but the woeful book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (Cheers) only half-heartedly colours them in, giving the poor performers no fresh meat with which to flesh out the skeletal characters. So we have Jacqueline Clarke adapting a hardened but humorous rasp as Sister Mary Lazarus and Laurie Scrath pulling on a fat suit to play Sister Mary Patrick while a chorus of nuns shimmer and shake in vile diamante habits (costumes by Lez Brotherston) that make them look like epileptic cooler bags. (So much for that vow of poverty) While the movies poked gentle fun at the women, the musical mocks them, reducing them to ridiculous, excitable caricatures.

Nearly all the minor roles have been padded out with songs and story lines, in an attempt to create life outside of the sisters stomping choral numbers, that are often left unresolved or that feel disingenuous. The role of Eddie Souther (Edward Baruwa), the Detective charged with keeping Deloris alive has been dumbed down and needlessly turned into a romantic lead that doesn’t gel with her realisation that she had found what she was looking for with the sisters in the convent. While Sister Mary Robert’s (Julia Atherton) crisis of faith, which provides the musical with one of its tour de force moments, is not developed, as it would distract from the ‘nuns having fun’ inanity elsewhere.

The biggest problem with the book is that the whole thing is built around one liners from the movie, which we already know, robbing them of their salt, while the newly penned puns and double entendres are weak, contrived and safe. The pace buses us from one recollection of the movie to the next, like a Sister Act Hot Spots Tour, and never allows the performers to truly react to what is going on.

The music, by eight time Academy Award winner Alan Menken, pales in comparison to the spine tingling fusion of choral and soul that made its source so memorable. You clap rather than sing along and while the mix of Philly Soul with more traditional Broadway fare is infectiously upbeat (and occasionaly very funny, as in When I Find My Baby, which takes the soulful warbling of the Del Fonics and shoots it from a macabre cannon) it never captures the celestial rush that being on a dance floor or being close to God elicits.

Worse yet, the pulsing music drowns out Glenn Slater’s lyrics. For what are these women singing? To whom? Unlike in the movie, where they sang to their Lord, there is no sense of spirituality or feeling to the whole thing. It’s all about shaking their booties.

It would be unscrupulous of me to not reveal that the whole thing went down a treat with the audience on opening night. The place was charged with hen night like hysteria. Klara Zieglerova’s gaudy sets, Natasha Katz swirling lights and a cast who brought vim to the underdeveloped parts insured that the customers got flash for their cash.

But if your hope was to see a show that refilled the Sister Act tank you will be sadly disappointed. It’s running on fumes. It is what it is, it is not what it could have been.

What a terrible pity.


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