Not long ago I attended a performance of "The Sound of Music" where the Mother Abbess during "My Favorite Things" all but broke into a breakdance. It was shameless, but the audience loved it; which points to how audiences adore the notion of nuns behaving not so much badly as inappropriately.
Witness the success of "Nunsense" and its numerous sequels. Or "Sister Act," the musical adaptation of the popular 1992 comedy that starred Whoopi Goldberg as a fugitive hiding out in a convent. Put a kick line of sequined nuns onto a stage and the audience welcomes it as the best thing since the last installment of "Happy Feet."
How much you enjoy "Sister Act" may depend on your tolerance of such a concept since the show, which plays at the Opera House through February 3, is a thin, but enjoyable throwback to an old-fashioned kind of musical filled with comic stereotypes, a paint-by-the-numbers plot and a score that echoes the time and place the story has been reset, which is Philadelphia in the late 1970s.
The latter is the show’s cleverest element -- an attempt to evoke the sleek disco sound that came out of the city during that period. There are moments when groups such as The Three Degrees and The O’Jays come to mind; and there are obvious references to such R&B stars as Teddy Pendergrass and Barry White.
At its best, "Sister Act" repackages the look and sound of "Soul Train," but with an ecclesiastical glint. When the nuns perform for the Pope in the show’s final moments, the panels of stain glass that line the church altar burst with vibrant color and effects more associated with a dance club.
Hey, wasn’t there a New York church that functioned as a disco in the 1980s? "Sister Act" may as well have taken place at that club, (for those with long memories, it was called Limelight).
The "fish out of water" plot has Deloris Van Cartier (the extraordinary Ta’Rea Campbell), a singer who witnesses her mobster boyfriend murdering an informant. With the help of police detective Ernie, Doloris hides out in an order of nuns, much to the dismay of the order’s strict Mother Superior (a sure-voiced Hollis Resnik). But the Mother superior has bigger problems: the parish faces a shutdown due to poor attendance and her order faces disbandment.
Enter Deloris, who turns the pathetic choir into a singing machine, replete with a R&B vibe, that electrifies the community. The problem is that with the notoriety comes the possibility of exposing Deloris’s hideout to the mobsters searching for her.
It takes most of the first act for "Sister Act" to come into its own. Up to then its one-liners, stock characters and literal evocation of its source wears out its welcome rather quickly. There are sparks, such as Deloris’s knockout opening signature song, "Fabulous, Baby," and Eddie’s adroitly staged "I Could Be That Guy," with its lightning-fast costume change and evocation of a Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes routine; but it isn’t until Delores turns the chorus around that the show realizes its potential. Fortunately, it is sustained for most of the second act, where songs replace tiresome dialogue and, more importantly, Delores gets to come front and center to express herself in song.
That comes with a reprise of "Fabulous, Baby" where Deloris is torn between her dream of super-stardom and her bonding with her sisters. Front and center, Campbell soars with a voice that rivals Jennifer Hudson in its beauty and intensity, and a comic sensibility that, happily, brings to mind the great Whoopi. That and the title number (which follows immediately), are the show’s emotional high points and make it apparent Campbell is a performer to look out for in the future.
Still, the adaptation, by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner with an assist by Douglas Carter Beane, is serviceable at best. Many of its gags are obvious and one-liners are not terribly funny. The book is little more than a template for fans of the film to latch onto. Better is the music (by Alan Menken) and lyrics (by Glenn Slater), which is catchy and droll, most notably in its smart evocation of the Philly International Sound given a Broadway treatment.
Director Jerry Zaks keeps the action moving with requisite speed, nicely supplemented by Anthony Van Laast’s slick, Vegas-styled choreography. There are no breakdancing nuns, but there is a kick-line or two.
Klara Zieglerova’s set designs use perspective tricks to much advantage to suggest the vastness of the church where most of the action takes place. Her big set piece -- an altar lined with stain glass -- is quite effective, especially during the jubilant finale, where lighting designer Natasha Katz goes into delirious high gear. Lez Brotherston’s costumes have fun with the notion of mixing nightlife looks from the period with traditional religious garb, that is to say there are plenty of glitzy habits on the stage.
The actors in the supporting roles work wonders with the two-dimensional characterizations they’re given. Hollis Resnick makes a resonant Mother Superior, despite often seeming like a one-note scold. (It was the role Maggie Smith played so well in the film.)
Florrie Bagel does a first-rate impersonation of actress Kathy Nijimy, so memorable in the film as Sister Mary Patrick; and Lael Van Keuren brings a tenderness to the naïve Sister Mary Robert, who is given a second act star-turn in an aria of regret, "The Life I Never Led."
Kinsley Leggs plays an effective heavy in a character named Curtis (a nod, one supposes, to the similar character from "Dreamgirls"); and Jason Simon nicely underplays his role as the meek detective secretly in love with Deloris.
"Sister Act" is both a model of the 21st century musical, taking a popular film and replicating it on the stage. But it also a throwback to the kind of musicals that would run a season or two on Broadway, maybe tour (as this one is) and be best remembered for its original cast album. It’s not great; but its sleek and professional. And if you like nuns dancing and singing like the Rockettes, this is a show for you.
Sister Act continues through February 2 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Broadway Across America/Boston webpage.>