Patina Miller and Victoria Clark deliver superior performances in this fun new Broadway musical adaptation of the1992 film about a nightclub singer forced to hide in a convent.
For example, Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in the film, is now one of the producers for the show's Broadway premiere; Tony Award nominee Douglas Carter Beane has added material to the original book; and, above all, four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks has been brought on board to direct, and shares in both the credit for what works in the show and the blame for what doesn't.
The plot follows Deloris Van Cartier (Patina Miller), a young African-American singer who inadvertently witnesses a murder perpetrated by her gangster boyfriend Curtis (Kingsley Leggs). In order to hide Deloris until she can testify in court, Detective Eddie Souther (Chester Gregory) brings her to a financially endangered church, with a convent run by a stern Mother Superior (Victoria Clark).
There is, however, an immediate clash of personalities between the worldly Deloris and the conservative Reverend Mother, made even more apparent once Deloris joins the choir and begins leading the nuns in a style of singing that brings in new members to the church, but which the Mother Superior worries is a corrupting influence on her Order.
Miller -- who originated her role in London -- seems a bit too stiff in her first few scenes, but warms up as the show goes on and is always on-target vocally. Clark provides a groundedness to her character that serves as a nice contrast to the over-the-top proceedings around her. She also movingly delivers the second act solo, "Haven't Got a Prayer," which has been newly added for the Broadway production. The show also includes stand-out work from Marla Mindelle as Sister Mary Robert, a postulant who starts out shy but develops confidence thanks to Deloris' encouragement; and Demond Green, who is goofily endearing as Curtis' nephew, TJ.Alan Menken's music for Sister Act seems heavily influenced by Philadelphia Soul, and is perhaps the main reason why the action is now set in Philadelphia in the late 1970s, rather than the San Francisco and Reno of the early 1990s, as in the movie. However, Menken also incorporates disco, gospel, a more traditional Broadway sound, and even shades of the composer's Disney work to good effect. Orchestrator Doug Besterman also deserves credit for making it all come together in a unified yet funky fashion.
Glenn Slater's lyrics are often amusing, and his words to the song, "When I Find My Baby," sung by Curtis and his gang, slyly take the stalkerish quality of a number of pop love songs to a lethal level. Leggs also balances the right amount of charisma and menace so that when he sings "when I find my baby / I ain't lettin' her go," we know exactly what Curtis intends.
Beane has built on the work of writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and while there are some funny lines in the show, the script still feels like it could use more revision. Among the worst missteps is a poorly developed romantic subplot between Deloris and Eddie (whom she knew in high school). The journey Deloris takes within the musical centers on her coming to understand that she has become part of this community of nuns, which she elegantly expresses in the show's title song. As Eddie doesn't fit into that trajectory, the romance (which doesn't even exist in the movie) feels tacked on.
Another problem, for which Zaks is perhaps most at fault, is that the musical's tone is neither a satire of the Catholic Church nor all that respectful of the institution, which leads to a troubling superficiality. For example, the fundraising efforts by the presiding priest, Monsignor O'Hara (Fred Applegate), start out with the noble efforts of saving the church from being closed down and sold. However, once that goal is realized, the continued exhortations for more money appear to just be funneled into gaudy excesses -- which seems wrong, even though costume designer Lez Brotherston and set designer Klara Zieglerova admittedly create some eye-popping visuals to show off the extravagance.