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Sister Act - The Musical

also see Sharon's review of The Pirates of Penzance

The decision to adapt the film Sister Act for the stage was a no-brainer; the decision to set it in the 1970s was the real genius moment. Turning the light and slightly sappy tale of a lounge singer who temporarily hides out in a convent - shaking up the place (and learning a bit about herself besides) - into a Broadway-bound musical makes a great deal of sense. After all, the script comes with several perfect opportunities for knockout ensemble numbers, as Deloris gets the nuns' choir to rock. But putting it in the '70s gives the musical an identity - a framework to inspire and guide Alan Menken's music; a source of endless comedy for supporting characters, choreography, and costumes; and a concrete emotional grounding for a group of women of faith, who are now trying to survive the age of disco. (It also has the added effect of de-politicizing the show. While audiences looking for a good time at the theatre might get riled up over issues of concern to the Church today, we can all look back on the upheavals of the '70s with a smile.)

And, while the film that begat the musical is largely thought of as a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, Sister Act - the Musical shares the wealth, handing out show-stealing numbers like Halloween candy. Deloris's boyfriend - the mobster who is the reason she finds herself in witness protection - is Curtis Shank, a Shaft wanna-be with a pimpalicious wardrobe (costume designer Garry Lennon clearly revels in the excess of it all). In the first act, Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater give Curtis "Dress to Kill," a hilarious paean to his attire, in which he is backed up by his three bumbling henchmen. But in the second act, it is the henchmen who get the moment in the sun, a Marvin Gaye-inspired tune called "Lady in the Long Black Dress," in which they imagine - with outrageously misplaced sincerity - how they would sweet-talk a nun. Sgt. Eddie Souther, the policeman who has been nursing a crush on Deloris since high school, is not overlooked, having "I Could Be That Guy", a song that is part wistful ballad and part Disco King fantasy.

The Sisters themselves also get terrific numbers. The bubbly, always-happy Sister Mary Patrick (Amy K. Murray, channelling Kathy Najimy) and the ancient-and-surprisingly-earthly Sister Mary Lazarus (Audrie Neenan, whose voice might be a tad too grating) lead the nuns in "How I Got the Calling," another comic gem. Beth Malone, as shy novitiate Sister Mary Robert, nearly walks off with the show, with "The Life I Never Led," a beautiful anthem with poignant lyrics. Mother Superior is played by Elizabeth Ward Land, with a dictatorial voice and bearing that never hint at the winning personality that comes out to play in her late second-act number, "I Haven't Got a Prayer."

And, of course, there are the songs you expect - the songs that come out when a self-styled "diva in training" takes over a choir of nuns. You can see the first one coming. When we are introduced to Deloris, she's in a club singing "Take Me to Heaven," a disco hit in which she begs a lover to "take me to heaven/take me to ecstasy," and you just know this is going to come back with a completely different meaning when a dozen nuns are singing it in church. There are actually only three big nun numbers in the show: "Take Me to Heaven," which closes the first act; "Sunday Morning Fever," which opens the second; and "Mirror Ball," which closes the show. (The lyrics on the latter are the weakest of the three. "God is like a mirror ball" might be pushing the metaphor a little too hard.) An additional choir performance number would be a welcome addition; the second act is so focussed on plot, the musical almost forgets what brought everyone to the theatre in the first place.

A couple songs misfire. A musical shouting match between the nuns and the locals in a biker bar (set to an inexplicable carnival-style tune) should be replaced or cut altogether. And the show's title number, in which Deloris and Mother Superior accuse each other of being phony, errs in both music and lyrics. The lyrics are so cruel and spiteful, it leaves a bitter taste; and the song starts out at such a fever pitch, it has nowhere to go. But, by and large, this show is in remarkably good shape musically.

What is missing is a monstrous talent at the center - someone who can legitimately sing lead over the combined strength of the nun ensemble. Unfortunately, Dawnn Lewis isn't quite there yet. Vocally, she's got a great, powerful belt, but the top notes aren't there for her, and Menken has not written this score to her strengths. Indeed, it isn't until Sister Mary Robert is finally convinced to raise her voice in song, late in act one, that the high notes are finally solidly hit in this show. Lewis is fine with developing Deloris as a character, easily showing us Deloris's initial self-centeredness. But the accompanying song, "[I'm] Fabulous, Baby," is the sort of thing that demands vocal domination, and Lewis noticeably struggles in the higher ranges.

Will Sister Act run on Broadway? In its current state, absolutely. If it's tweaked a bit, it'll run for years.

Sister Act - the Musical plays at the Pasadena Playhouse through December 17, 2006. For tickets and information, see

Pasadena Playhouse - Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White Executive Director - proudly present Sister Act - the Musical. Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Glenn Slater; Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner. Based on the Touchstone Pictures motion picture Sister Act written by Joseph Howard. Scenic Design David Potts; Costume Design Garry Lennon; Lighting Design Donald Holder; Sound Design Carl Casella and Domonic Sack; Hair and Wig Design Carol F. Doran; Orchestrations Doug Besterman; Music Director/Conductor Brent-Alan Huffman; Electronic Music Design Andrew Barrett For Lionella Productions, Ltd.; Dance Music Arrangements Mark Hummel; Casting Michael Donovan, C.S.A.; Fight Coordinator Tim Weske; Marketing/Publicity Consultant David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Artwork Shoolery Design; Production Stage Manager Eileen F. Haggerty; Assistant Stage Manager Conwell Worthington III; Assistant Director Marcus Miller; Associate Choreographer Michelle Elkin; Creative Supervisor Michael Reno; Music Supervision, Vocal and Incidental Music Arrangements Michael Kosarin. Choreographed by Marguerite Derricks; Directed by Peter Schneider.

Mother Superior - Elizabeth Ward Land
Kay-T - Pátina Renea Miller
Larosa - Badia Farha
Deloris Van Cartier - Dawnn Lewis
Curtis Shank - Harrison White
TJ - Melvin Abston
Bones - Danny Stiles
Dinero - Dan Domenech
Willard - Henry Polic II
Sgt. Eddie Souther - David Jennings
Sister Mary Patrick - Amy K. Murray
Sister Mary Robert - Beth Malone
Sister Mary Lazarus - Audrie Neenan
Sister Mary Francis - Badia Farha
Sister Mary Charles - Pátina Renea Miller
Sister Mary Hope - Andi Gibson
Sister Mary Bertrand - Roberta B. Wall
Sister Mary Edward - Lisa Robinson
Sister Mary Dominique - Claci Miller
Sister Mary Gabriel - Wendy Melkonian
Sister Mary Augustine - Wendy James
Monsignor Howard - Henry Polic II
Leather - Danny Stiles
Muscle-T - Melvin Abston
Doo-Rag - Dan Domenech
Maxine - Roberta B. Wall
Old Bearded Biker - Henry Polic II
Go-Go Dancers - Pátina Renea Miller, Andi Gibson
Cocktail Waitresses - Badia Farha, Claci Miller
Biker - Wilkie Ferguson
Biker Chicks - Wendy James, Wendy Melkonian, Lisa Robinson
Ensemble - Melvin Abston, Pátina Renea Miller, Dan Domenech, Badia Farha, Wilkie Ferguson, Andi Gibson, Wendy James, Wendy Melkonian, Claci Miller, Henry Polic II, Lisa Robinson, Danny Stiles, Roberta B. Wall
Dance Captain - Harrison White
Fight Captain - Wilkie Ferguson

Photo by Ed Krieger

- Sharon Perlmutter

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