Sister Act: Cute Twerking Nuns and All at TUTS

Simon Gundy as Deloris Van Cartier and Susan Koozin as Mother Superior in Sister Act at TUTS.
Simon Gundy as Deloris Van Cartier and Susan Koozin as Mother Superior in Sister Act at TUTS. Photo by Melissa Taylor

For TUTS' sake, I should let anyone sitting around me during Sister Act write this review. It would be a rave.

My nearby audience whooped and laughed, really laughed out loud, at everything on stage. They murmured in hushed anticipation when gangster Curtis purred out his death threat against Deloris; they giggled at his three henchmen right out of Kiss Me, Kate; they screamed with delight at the sight of the out-of-tune nuns parading across the stage; they snickered at Mother Superior's exasperated and snarky reaction to low-rent Deloris; they cooed with “Sweaty Eddie” and his Mr. Cellophane song “I Could Be That Guy;” and they absolutely lost it when the nun choir burst out in rafter-shaking harmony in “Raise Your Voice.” Then they applauded the blue Mylar drop curtain.

How can I be anything other than a Grinch to counter such happy reaction to this musical?

It's not the utmost professionalism of director/choreographer Dan Knechtges and his merry band of musical theater wizards, or the polished cast, all of whom work their magic with unalloyed Broadway musical making of the highest caliber. None of this makes me grumpy – it's the musical itself.

Sorry, but this wan adaptation of the hit 1992 movie starring Whoopie Goldberg, fresh on the heels of her Academy Award-winning turn in Ghost, is utterly manufactured and constructed to push our lowest comedy buttons. Nuns acting un-nunly is easy pickings. Thugs acting like a Benny Hill backup routine is a no-brainer. It's all so tired and not worth the trouble.

It took the musical five years from its premiere at Pasadena Playhouse to reach Broadway (2006). Revisions involved new directors, scenic design, and writers. Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed, As Bees in Honey Drown, screenplay To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar) was hired for his patented barbs to punch up the book by Cheers' Emmy Award-writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. You can hear Beane's snarky humor: Looking around the cavernous convent Deloris asks, Is there a smoking section? Without missing a beat, Mother Superior replies archly, Yes, you're heading for it.

The movie is grittier and blessed with Goldberg's irrepressible Deloris, surrounded by a slew of character actors who, even under their wimples, manage to create indelible comic characters.

There's no fault to be found in Simone Grundy, as moll on the run Deloris whose witness protection program places her inside a Philly convent. She wails her disco numbers like Donna Summer and possesses enough sass and sexy charm to enchant us all. Susan Koozin, as Mother Superior, uses her incredible stagecraft to turn her crotchety cartoon abbess into an actual person. Her signature paean, “Here Within These Walls,” hushed the audience with its heartfelt clarity. (Koozin, a Houston theater pro will always be treasured for her incandescent Big Edie in Stages' Grey Gardens.) The nuns have been cast for their resemblance to the movie originals, but they're heavenly in their own right: Raven Justine Troup (who made an indelible impression in TUTS' Spring Awakening) as innocent Mary Robert; Joline Mujica, as happy-wappy Mary Patrick; Cathy Newman, as crusty Mary Lazarus.

The men fare just as well – the comic goons: Logan Keslar, Anthony Alfaro, and Trey Morgan Lewis; Jamall Houston as unrequited love interest Eddie; and LaBraska Washington as infectious Monsignor, who parlays some very smooth moves in the sanctuary. But it's Alan H. Green as unctuous, dangerous Curtis, who grabs the spotlight. Slyly crooning “When I Find My Baby” like Al Green, he's one suave mobster. In a comic twist, he may be singing a love song about Deloris, but what he means by “I ain't lettin' her go” means something completely different.

Each one of them gets an individual number – or a reprise – which drags the musical unnecessarily. Does every situation, every plot point, every character development need its own song? Obviously, yes.

Composer Alan Menken, who has a cabinet full of Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and a Tony, knows his way around '70s funk and pulsing disco, while using great swathes of Broadway belt and brass to worm into our ear. The tunes are dancy, certifiably propulsive, but not entirely memorable. Glenn Slater's lyrics are devilishly clever but not always distinctly heard during the rousing ensemble gospel numbers.

Adam Koch's set design is suitably sacred – though the disco ball crucifix at the finale is rather shocking; Gary C. Echelmeyer's light plot throbs with Par lights; and Colleen Grady's costumes flash miles of lamé and glitz.

While wildly popular and clearly an audience favorite, Sister Act owes its Houston success to Dan Knetchges, TUTS' artistic director. Regardless of its inherent flaws, under his direction and spirited choreography, the musical strongly struts to a disco beat. There's a celebration going on at the Hobby. It's a shame the show isn't as jubilant as its staging.

Sister Act continues through November 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p,m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test as well as masks required. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40-$136.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover