Alan Menken, Glenn Slater, Cheri & Bill Steinkellner
Jamie Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin McCollum, Gavin Kalin,
Robbie Wilson, Curve Leicester
Manchester Palace Theatre June 27- July 9; 2hr 20min
(also Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Feb 13 -18, 2023; Grand Theatre, Leeds March 21-April 1; Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield April 4-15; Liverpool Empire, May 15-20)
"If you only see one Roman Catholic mass this season let this be it!" So, according to the nuns of Sister Act, says the Philadelphia Enquirer, and from a purely theatrical point of view it's hard to disagree.
Sister Act tells the story of nightclub chanteuse and "wayward woman", Deloris Van Cartier (as in Cartier's, she regularly clarifies), admirably portrayed by vocal tour de force Sandra Marvin, who witnessing a murder is placed under police protection and hidden in a convent, assuming the identity of a nun.
Here she come up against the hilariously dour Mother Superior (Jennifer Saunders), who agrees to hide her under duress, and puts her in charge of the choir of sisters (including star turns Keala Settle, Lesley Joseph and Lizzie Bea as the young postulant Sister Mary Robert), where she livens up the plainchant to the extreme, ultimately transforming the sisters into a costumed, choreographed powerhouse of evangelism for Catholicism (and 1970s disco).
Based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg (now a producer), but with its own original songs by the inimitable Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, the show does farce to the extreme, with classic cliches including dancing comedy henchmen, fish-out-of-water characters, and religious piety turned funky. The well-worn Hollywood character device known as the "magical negro" is played down in this incarnation, and racial references to Deloris much reduced, which can only be a good thing in 2022, and it is gratifying to see that sort of attention to detail by the producers.
There are some wonderful vocal performances from Marvin, Settle and Bea and the chorus, disappointing only in as much as Settle doesn't get her own song. Saunders is a consummate comedian, of course, and hides her musical issues with unique character delivery. We find ourselves willing her on and celebrating when she hits a good note; laughing at the in-joke acknowledgement that might be rare. Overall the balance is in her favour and she really does sell her two songs without always singing them.
Joseph successfully employs a similar technique, while local (well, Oldham-born) Clive Rowe, as the cop and love interest Steady Eddie, also pulls it out of the bag with a couple of fantastic numbers – including a double-strip costume reveal. Impressive stuff.
One more star of the show is the set design, a skyscape of Philadelphia, nightclubs transforming into cloisters, stained glass that takes us to a Catholic disco inferno, a communion table with a cross that becomes a beer tap, and so on. This show is about transformation, which is impressive here scenographically, as well as in the character journeys.
Not often mentioned is the orchestration, but there is a filmic quality here that makes the underscoring as emotionally charged as a Disney animation, as well as the skill that takes us from Benedictus to funk in a mere second, no questions asked.
Ultimately a tale of redemption, and all ends well for Deloris, Eddie, the church and the nuns, with more than a little gentle moralising and theologising along the way. Mother Superior argues that the choral synergy entered into by the nuns under Deloris is God's work, while Deloris advocates for the natural togetherness of being human. They concede that perhaps it might be the same thing.
One way or another, sisterly love saves the day.
Tickets and info here