Sheila Hancock and Patina Miller in Sister Act
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Sheila Hancock and Patina Miller in Sister Act
(© Catherine Ashmore)
The hills may have ceased to ring with the sound of music, but there are still singing nuns around, as the musical version of the 1992 film Sister Act has taken up residence at the London Palladium.

While the production takes a while to warm up -- and there are a number of scenes that director Peter Schneider could have trimmed and tightened -- the end result is ultimately appealing. And its success is due in large part to the star performance of Patina Miller, who brings a glorious, soaring voice and unflagging energy to the role of lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier.

As in the film, Deloris witnesses her mobster boyfriend commit a murder and so goes to the police -- who decide the best thing for her is to get herself and her platform-heeled shoes to a nunnery, since it's the last place her boyfriend Shank (Chris Jarman) would think to look for her. After a short time there, the initially skeptical Mother Superior (Sheila Hancock), having unsuccessfully tried to make Deloriis see the benefits of a life of quiet contemplation, assigns her to whip the convent choir into shape. (Amusingly, they manage to belt out a number without her assistance.)

Writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner have transplanted the story to 1978 in order to better accommodate Alan Menken's disco-driven score. The Motown tracks used in the film have been replaced with original songs that reference everything from Shaft to Barry White to Saturday Night Fever. While Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater have created some powerful group numbers for the choir scenes, which combine the pulse of disco with the uplift of gospel, there's also a fair bit of filler.

One can see each plot point and the next from some distance away, but it seems redundant to quibble about such things -- although the moment where a young novice finds liberation in a pair of purple thigh-high boots is perhaps pushing things too far. In general, the comic interludes -- such as the scene where Shank's goons discuss the best way to woo a woman -- work far better than the syrupy business about sisterhood and self-fulfilment. And by the time the giant statue of the Virgin Mary is made over as a mirror ball, most people will have fallen for the show's slickness if nothing else.

While Miller stands front and center, she benefits from being backed up by a very strong ensemble. Hancock has the requisite icy veneer (that one knows will eventually melt), while Katie Rowley Jones and Julia Sutton revel in their respective stereotypes as Sister Mary Robert, the sheltered, nervous novice, and Sister Mary Lazarus, the feisty old nun who necks shots of whiskey.