In 2011, The Book of Mormon swept the Tony Awards and overshadowed all the other shows it was up against. While I love that religious satire, some of the other productions nominated for Best Musical that year deserve a little bit more recognition. The playful comedy Sister Act is one that comes to mind.
Taking place in the 1970’s, Deloris Van Cartier (Alysha Deslorieux) is a nightclub singer having an affair with a ruthless gangster, Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs). After accidentally witnessing him murder a cohort, Deloris seeks safety from police station desk chief, Eddie Souther (E. Clayton Cornelious). Chief then places Deloris into the witness protection program. The catch is that she will be disguised as, say it with me Whoopi Goldberg fans, a nun.
One of the things people should be prepared for, going into Sister Act at the San Diego Civic Theatre is that it is not a star vehicle for the lead like the 1992 film was for Goldberg. That being said, the main performer does hold her own against the rest of the cast. Understudy Deslorieux, who took over for the named-lead (Ta’rea Campbell) has a hilariously sassy attitude and belts many of her songs powerfully and soulfully.
Instead of just being about Deloris’s struggles with her new identity, many characters from the extremely quiet Mary Robert (Lael Van Keuren) to the by the book Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) have their own captivating stories as well.
Part of the reason so much attention is paid to these supporting roles is to symbolize the theme of unity that is expressed throughout the many scenes that occur in the convent. Since Deloris isn’t the only one stealing the spotlight, this message rings true instead of feeling forced or cloying.
While not including singles from the hit movie such as “My Guy” and “I Will Follow Him” seems like a missed opportunity, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater more than make up for this with their toe tapping musical numbers. They take advantage of the 1970’s setting with songs that pay homage popular classics by singers such as the Bee Gees and Barry White. Though many of these tunes are tongue in cheek, the music is authentically retro.
There are also plenty of Broadway style melodies similar to some of Menken’s previous work for Disney including “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Some of the ballads including “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” and “The Life I Never Led” and “Sister Act” are memorable showcases for actresses in the cast and are reminders about why Menken is one of the more beloved tunesmiths of the last few decades.
The humor is snarky, and sarcastic but the laughs never feel mean-spirited. This is because the nuns are fully developed individuals who do not feel like charactures and ultimately are all empathetic. Credit should be given to director Jerry Zaks and to writers Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane for making this aspect of the curtain raiser work.
Zaks directs with the right amount of lightness to have the audience enjoy the breezy tone, while also getting invested in Deloris’s world. This is expertly set up in the opening scene, where after The Supremes-esque opening number, “Take Me to Heaven,” it becomes clear that the aspiring star deserves a better life than the one she has with Curtis.
Clever and full of warmth, Sister Act is uplifting entertainment. When the big finale, “Spread the Love Around,” is over, it is hard not to have a big smile on your face.
[box] Performs Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 2 and 7:30, and Sunday at 1 and 6. Tickets are $39.50-$105.50. Running Time: About two hours and fifteen minutes, with one-15 minute intermission.
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