The set-up: If you've seen the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, this slick Broadway adaptation of Sister Act will come as no surprise. If you've ever seen any Broadway show, this slick Broadway adaptation will come as no surprise.
The execution: The movie, no critics' darling, was a surprise bonanza at the box office. The sight gag of nuns gettin' down and dirty and wailing like a Soul Train gospel choir, aided by Goldberg's smart-ass comic style, fresh from her Oscar-winning Ghost performance, parlayed the movie into 1992's top ten list. The major glitch: original writer Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values) unhappy with the results removed his name from the credits and replaced it with a pseudonym, "Joseph Howard."
On its bumpy ride to Broadway, the musical (with music by Disney alum/Oscar/Tony award-winner Alan Menken; lyrics by Glenn Slater; book by Cheers' creators Cheri and Bill Steinkellner) originated at California's Pasadena Playhouse in 2006, immediately transferred to Georgia's Alliance Theatre, then was completely revised for its 2009 London premiere with new choreography, sets, lighting, and costumes. It played in London for a very respectable sixteen-month run.
When it opened on the Great White Way in 2011, the musical had a brand new writer (Douglas Carter Beane), director (Jerry Zaks), a few new songs, and different cast, except for its London leading lady. Why all the scrambling over something so glossy and endearingly obvious? Under the sequins and booty-shakin' habits lurks a conventional, old-fashioned show. Even if you're unaware of its movie references, there's nothing to surprise you. When the biggest wow-moment is an instant costume change -- it's a stunner and you never see it coming -- the snap of the original is long gone.
The story, as if you didn't know it, has changed little from the movie, except for location and time frame. Music diva wannabe Deloris (deliciously powered Ta'rea Campbell) witnesses a murder by her gangster manager Curtis (Kingsley Leggs, from the Broadway cast, slick like Lou Rawls). Nerdy Philly cop Eddie (slyly smooth E. Clayton Cornelious), secretly in love with Deloris, plops her in the last place Curtis or his goons would look: a convent.
What a surprise that this earthy extrovert butts against the crusty but strict Mother Superior (dry-as-martini Hollis Resnick), while she transforms the sheltered, and tone deaf, nuns into a high-powered singing troupe, letting loose their inner soul sisters. Will the decrepit church, without parishioners and soon to be sold to "two bachelor antique dealers," pull through? Will mousy postulant Mary Robert (leather-lunged Lael Van Keuren, also from Broadway) break out of her shell? Will jolly Mary Patrick (Florrie Bagel, channeling good will and comic timing) find her inner groove, as well as a voice? Will Curtis get his come-uppance? Will Eddie get his dream girl? Will Deloris find inner peace? Hell, yes!
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All the moments you'd expect in any standard musical about the profane crashing against the sacred are here, along with some you'd wish the producers would've left in Pasadena: wailing "wanting" ballads for each and every principal; the panoply of wise-cracking nuns -- isn't everyone cute and sassy?; a trio of comically inept henchmen, second-rate holdovers from Kiss Me, Kate; the Mother Superior as Top Banana via Bea Arthur; spirited ensemble numbers that soar through the Hobby; predictable Catholic bashing, but on the lite side; too many reprises in the song catalog; and plenty of showbiz sparkle to blind you to the emptiness -- Klara Zieglerova's stained glass panels throb like Chelsea's hedonistic Limelight nightclub of yore under Natasha Katz's pounding lighting.
The show is flashy, but shallow, and runs completely on auto-pilot. The saving grace is twofold: Menken's gospel-style Broadway melodies and the high-octane cast; both a godsend.
Setting Sister Act in the '70s lets Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Newsies) rip into disco, Motown, soul, and funk, without really leaving the confine of sweet tunes and harmonies, a specialty of his. When the good sisters let loose in the rousing "Take Me to Heaven" or "Spread the Love Around," the Hobby roof gets raised along with our spirits. The musical thrives on these big, bold numbers. The girls shake their asses, show some leg, and thoroughly lose their inhibitions as they whirl like dervishes in Anthony Van Lasst's non-stop girl-group choreography. There's cheesy comedy to mine when nuns turn into amateur pole dancers. The verdict: If you're a fan of the movie, Sister Act, presented by Gexa Energy Broadway on its post-Broadway North American tour, will not disappoint. It won't enlighten, either. You might pray for it, though.
Menken and Slater's "nuns go wild" plays through June 2 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at broadwayacrossamerica.com/houston or call 800-982-2787.