I was in seminary in 1992 when Sister Act hit movie screens. While the comedy about a singer (played by Whoopi Goldberg, smartly subbing for Bette Midler) hiding out from her mobster boyfriend in a convent was a surprise summertime hit at the box office, it was a true sensation in Catholic circles. The nuns, priests and fellow seminarians I knew turned out for it in droves and saw it multiple times, as did I. The less successful 1993 sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, sent the sisters packing from cineplexes, but they were resurrected 13 years later for a stage musical adaptation of the original movie. Sister Act: The Musical, originated at southern California's Pasadena Playhouse in 2006, then received overhauls in both Atlanta and London before finally hitting Broadway in 2011, where it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It has returned to the LA area and is now playing at the Pantages Theater through July 28th.
While Cheri and Bill Steinkellner's book (with additional material by out playwright Douglas Carter Beane) is generally faithful to the 1992 screenplay (which was written by out playwright Paul Rudnick but credited to the pseudonymous Joseph Howard), the musical makes some odd changes. First, the action has been moved to 1977, seemingly for no reason other than to cite then-popular disco hits like "The Hustle" and make some racial humor — including comical applications of the dated term "Negro" — more palatable for today's arguably more enlightened audiences. Second, the musical beefs up the roles of the gangster, Curtis, and his goons with decidedly mixed results. The part (originally named "Vince") was much more of a cameo in the movie for then-hot Harvey Keitel. Whereas the Sister Act film kept the comic and dramatic focus on the relationships between Goldberg's Deloris Van Cartier and the various oddball sisters who take her under their wing, the musical frustratingly pulls away from these for vignettes showing Curtis and/or the three sleazy blockheads beholden to him on the hunt for Deloris.
Fortunately, one probably couldn't ask for a better fill-in for Goldberg than the touring production's Ta'Rea Campbell. This veteran of Broadway's The Lion King and The Book of Mormon, among other credits, is blessed with a spectacular singing voice and impressive comic chops. She also gamely sports the show's retro-70's fashions, when she isn't wearing a habit that is. Hollis Resnik, another talented vet of stage and screen, plays the convent's Mother Superior as more world-weary than did Maggie Smith in the movie but is in similarly fine voice when she sings, especially on Mother Superior's wistful "Here Within These Walls."
While multiple-Oscar winner Alan Menken's music is fine, one wishes he had a less-obvious lyricist than Glenn Slater at his side here. To be fair, Slater has improved since his dreadful work on Leap of Faith and the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies. The best songs in Sister Act are those up-tempo numbers performed by Deloris and the sisters, notably "Raise Your Voice", "Take Me To Heaven", "Sunday Morning Fever" and the climactic "Spread the Love Around." Curtis's "When I Find My Baby" starts out as an amusing homage to Barry White but devolves into a tasteless paean to the creative options at his hand to kill Deloris. "Lady in the Long Black Dress," sung by Curtis's goons, is a more tongue-in-cheek but still tacky ode to inappropriate nun-love.
Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks directs with no particular flair; most of his staging consists of the actors pacing back and forth across the stage. Anthony Van Laast's choreography is better, especially during the aforementioned numbers shared by the nuns and Deloris. Costume designer Lez Brotherston deserves a special award for best use of the greatest number of sequins in any show since probably the original Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles.
There are worse ways to spend a summer evening than seeing the stage version of Sister Act. I only wish it had been a more heavenly experience. For true spiritual inspiration, rent the movie.
A more inspiring, genuinely moving film than even the original Sister Act, Unfinished Song, is now playing in theaters and is well worth seeking out. Terence Stamp gives an all-time best, Oscar-worthy performance as an elderly curmudgeon who reluctantly joins his wife's community choir after she passes away. Vanessa Redgrave is positively luminescent during her early scenes as the wife, no less so than when she sings Cyndi Lauper's hit "True Colors." Be sure to take a box of Kleenex but be prepared too to laugh, to possibly sing along and to definitely be awed by Stamp's marvelous, heartfelt work.
Sister Act: B-
Unfinished Song: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.