Sister Act, the Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical version of the popular 1992 film, is a by-the-numbers piece of work. The sloppy book (by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner, with “additional material” by Douglas Carter Beane) flattens the film’s charms, while the musical numbers, while tuneful and even sometimes catchy, aren’t distinguished.
But, that fact may have no bearing whatsoever on your enjoyment of Moonlight Stage Productions’ open-air version, performing in Vista through July 2.
As in the film, Deloris Van Cartier (Daebreon Poiema) needs cover after witnessing her manager/boyfriend (Rufus Bonds, Jr.) execute one of his henchmen. Her high school buddy, police officer Eddie Souther (Cornelius Jones, Jr.) decides to hide her in a convent that’s attached to a failing church. Taking the name of Sister Mary Clarence, Delores struggles to overcome her Catholic school upbringing and a by-the-book Mother Superior (Victoria Jones) so that convent life doesn’t feel so oppressive. Mother Superior’s idea that Delores might help the failing convent choir leads to multiple transformations.
Where the film used a catalog of R&B hits as its soundtrack, the musical features an original score that’s also used to help tell the story. Arguably the best of these songs is “Fabulous, Baby,” a disco-inspired pop tune that’s used to introduce Deloris in her life prior to the convent. The tune not only functions to introduce the character, but it also provides Ms. Poiema an opportunity to strut her stuff early on. The charm of the show relies on its leading character, and Ms. Poiema proves to sing with both power and grace and to handle the acting duties in an appealing manner. As her spiritual nemesis, Ms. Strong shows why she keeps getting cast in roles like the Mother Superior – she comes across as direct, in charge, but not without compassion. The two make a winning combination for audience enjoyment.
Popping out from amongst the big cast (I counted 25 performers altogether) were Mr. Jones, who made Officer “Sweaty Eddie” an ultimately appealing shlub, Sarah Errington and Bethany Slomka as the most distinguishable characters in the corps of nuns, and San Diego favorite Jim Chovick as the Monsignor in charge of the dilapidated church.
Director and Choreographer John Vaughn has worked at Moonlight several times previously. He’s good at managing traffic, keeping things moving, and making sure that the company executes with precision. On the musical side, Lyndon Pugeda gets a fine choral sound from the ensemble (when they’re supposed to sound good) and balances a sixteen-piece pit band to both the big and small moments (ably assisted by Jim Zadai’s sound design).
Moonlight rents its sets and costumes from other productions, and this time the sets (from The Music and Theatre Company) are, for the most part, merely functional. The costumes (from The Main State Music Theatre), fare much better. Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design gets the job done.
Wednesday served as the opening of Moonlight’s 36th season, and already they’ve announced Season 37: Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida next June, The Little Mermaid in July, Sunset Boulevard in August, and In the Heights in September. But, for now, Sister Act should prove to be a crowd pleaser.