Elizabeth Ward Land and Dawnn Lewis in Sister Act
(© Ed Kreiger)
Elizabeth Ward Land and Dawnn Lewis in Sister Act
(© Ed Kreiger)
Like its main character, Sister Act: The Musical, which is having its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. When focused within the confines of the church and the convent, the show is heavenly, singing loudly and confidently. However, the scenes that take place in the outside world are painted with unnecessarily broad and occasionally offensive strokes. Moreover, Dawnn Lewis lacks punch in the lead role of Deloris Van Cartier, so memorably played by Whoopi Goldberg in the hit 1992 film.

Emmy Award winners Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (Cheers) have followed the film's script somewhat faithfully. A troubled parish in Philadelphia circa 1980 finds its unlikely salvation in Deloris Van Cartier (Lewis), a lounge singer and gangster's moll who has witnessed a murder and is taken to the convent to hide until she can testify. At first, she does not take to her new surroundings nor to her new persona, Sister Mary Clarence. Indeed, the rebellious Deloris initially has a bad influence on the naïve sisters, taking them on a field trip to a skuzzy bar complete with pole dancers, pot-bellied bikers, and butch lesbians. But she soon finds her calling when she begins to conduct the church choir and teaches the nuns to sing rock versions of hymns. The newly spirited choir draws attention, money for the struggling church -- and the notice of Deloris' livid ex-boyfriend.

The musical finds its voice in its many stylish songs by Oscar winner Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, and in Marguerite Derricks' inventive choreography, which imaginatively blends holy motions with disco moves. Fans of the film may suspect that they will sorely miss such 1960s tunes as "I Will Follow Him" and "Rescue Me," but it's a credit to Menken and Slater that you don't walk out whistling the golden oldies. The best of the Menken-Slater songs are for the Mother Superior (Elizabeth Ward Land) and the choir, particularly "Light My Way" and the showstopper "Sunday Morning Fever." On the other hand, Deloris' solo numbers, including "Fabulous, Baby!" and "Would It Kill Me?", are far too generic.

The script contains the kind of zingers you'd expect from experienced sitcom writers. But while the jokes fly fast and furiously, they sometimes betray the characters just for a laugh. It's very unbelievable that a nun -- especially more than 25 years ago -- would say curse words like "bitch" or "screwing up," and the Sisters seem far too knowledgeable of pop culture for a group of women who have been cloistered away.

Director Peter Schneider flawlessly shifts scenes like a film editor. A chase sequence harks back to French farces with glow-in-the-dark habits and a mirror ball used for comic effect. In another bit of creative staging, Sgt. Eddie Souther (David Jennings), the cop who's assigned to protect Deloris, sings a Luther Vandross-style song that evolves into a hustle number, complete with a couple of clever costume changes.

Sister Act should be a star vehicle, but Lewis is too whiny to fully command the stage. She shines brightest when Deloris mingles with the nuns or leads the disco-beat services, but she loses her footing elsewhere. For the show to proceed to the next level, Broadway, it requires a take-no-prisoners belter such as Loretta Divine or Lilias White. On the plus side, Ward Land, does a good job of filling the shoes of Maggie Smith and steals the show as the Mother Superior. Stalwart, rigidly hostile, but vulnerable to Deloris' hurricane energies, she compliments her well acted portrayal with a magnificent singing voice. Beth Malone, Amy K. Murray, and Audrie Neenan are winning comic foils as fellow nuns, with Neenan getting the best belly laughs as Sister Mary Lazarus.

The show's male roles are decidedly problematic. Harrison White plays gangster Shank as a super-pimp, garbed in overcoats and sporting canes that appear to be stolen from the locker of Starsky and Hutch's Huggy Bear. As a result, he's too buffoonish to ever seem a real threat to Deloris. Melvin Abston, Dan Domenech, and Danny Stiles are delightfully funny as Shank's henchmen, but they appear to have wandered in from another show; and the rather boring character played by Jennings adds no flavor to the piece.

Sister Act has the potential to become a huge hit: it contains hummable tunes, tender moments, and enough laughs to challenge the best television comedies. Still, some substantial changes need to be made for the show to hit the jackpot.