Every once in a while, an event comes across your calendar that you just aren’t feeling. Sister Act fell squarely into that category for me. I don’t know if it was the film that never really stuck with me in the early 90s or the general distaste for all the resurrected 80s/90s movie time capsules of late — Flashdance, Ghost. It goes without saying that I wasn’t giddy to get to my seat, but I try to approach all shows with an open mind. I’m constantly striving to unearth the positives in a show that’s dying a slow death onstage and rub off the few negatives on shows that can’t pack the crowd in tight enough. Thankfully, my heavy reservations were dashed fairly quickly.
That was the backdrop as I headed into the Saturday matinee of Sister Act at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Sister Act was the final show in Broadway Across America’s 2012-13 Atlanta season at the Fox. When Sister Act hits the stage, you know what you are getting. The hit film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, is a fun caper highlighting a wayward lady on the run from the mob who is stashed in a convent as hilarity ensues. Instead of Whoopi, we get Ta’rea Campbell playing the lead as Deloris. It starts off much like you’d expect. Deloris is singing in Curtis’ club hoping to make her big break. Curtis (Kingsley Leggs) tells her she isn’t ready for the stage as a string of protests launch off her tongue. She is sleeping with the married Curtis and when he gives her one of his wife’s fur coats as a gift, she’s left feeling cheap and dirty. After a good bout of wallowing in the misery with her background singers, she heads home only to find Curtis and his cronies in the back alley offing a suspected police informant. She somehow escapes and knows her life is in constant jeopardy as long as she walks the streets.
Deloris finds her way to the police station where she runs into her old high school chum Sweaty Eddie (E. Clayton Cornelious). This charming nickname seems to tell you all you need to know about this sweet, nervous young man who had his gun taken away for freezing in the line of fire. Eddie convinces Deloris to testify against Curtis, and he angles to make her disappear from the world until the trial date. He stashes her in the last place the gangsters would think to look — a convent.
The church that houses the convent of nuns has fallen on hard times. Its congregation has slowly dwindled to the point where the Monsignor is preaching to an audience of mice each Sunday. He is in negotiations to sell the parish to a couple of bachelors that seem to hug each other a lot when Sweaty Eddie offers him cash to stash Deloris away from the city’s ugly underbelly. Monsignor O’Hara (Richard Pruitt) agrees and informs Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) that she’ll be adding a new member to her flock. Mother Superior prays for a well-mannered, God-fearing young lady, and she gets the polar opposite. The clash between Mother Superior and Deloris is immediate as the head nun lays down the law much to Deloris’ horror.
After much wrangling, Deloris surrenders her worldly possessions and casts aside her clubbing attire for the traditional habit. She comes to dinner to find a room of sheepish nuns intently eating mutton. At once, Deloris tries to rile up the sisters and tap into their rebellious streak which only gets her banned from dinner. After finding out about a bar across the street, she sneaks out for cheese steaks and beers. A couple sisters follow and it turns into a laugh fest as these abnormally sheltered women come into contact with the outside world for the first time. Deloris runs into Curtis’ henchmen, but thankfully they don’t recognize her decked out in her new garb.
After being caught escaping, Mother Superior again chastises Deloris for her insubordination and Deloris is pleading with Sweaty Eddie to find her another place to hide out, any other place. After it becomes painfully clear that she and Mother Superior are stuck with one another, Mother Superior suggests Deloris take her singing talents to the church choir. The nuns sing with their inside voice and tone isn’t a concept they’ve really mastered. At once, Deloris takes the reigns of the pathetic ensemble and infuses a heavy dose of soul to their numbers. At once, she is bonding with this stiff bunch of white ladies as they are discovering a fresh world of worship outside the 12th century. How will Mother Superior react to this soulful makeover? How will Deloris ultimately keep Curtis at bay?
Sister Act is a very enjoyable musical thanks to a strong book by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner and talented leading actresses. What could have easily fallen into a lazy reenactment of the film was sparked by witty dialog and clever religious humor. Its no secret that Book of Mormon has become the greatest musical in the land based on the humor of its religious barbs. The difference with Sister Act is that its pokes at religion are all in good fun rather than Stone & Parker’s blasphemous tone. Religion is very fertile ground for humor especially when you add in the culture clash of a 70s African-American party girl with the uptight nuns of the church. Around every bend there was a subtle joke that left the audience continually laughing. The humor was also injected into the song verse which further solidified this strong comedy.
A great book and song catalog would have meant little without a talent group of actresses to execute it. Ta-rea Campbell and Hollis Resnik really shined as Deloris and Mother Superior. Their vinegar and oil approach to the roles made the difference in making these characters pop and amplified the difficult situation. Florrie Bagel, Lael Van Keuren and Dianne J. Findlay add lots of spice to the mix as the wacky, quiet and crotchety nun. Another critical element of Sister Act was that it didn’t take itself too seriously. When the gangsters go from killing a man to doing a doo-wap dance number onstage, you can tell the show is in on the joke. This levity really underscored the comedic strength of the production. It could have easily descended into campy, goofy humor, but it seemed to hold that clever line throughout.
Much to my surprise, Sister Act was the best comedy I’ve seen this season. The book is highly clever and devilishly fun. Like a great comedy should, it serves up the laughs one after the other and doesn’t give you the chance to let the smile fall off your face. The strong leads and supporting cast really delivered the witty script with emotion and flavor. If your musical tastes meet at the corner of comedy and Broadway, then Sister Act should be right up your alley. It may have departed the Great White way in August, but you can still catch the production on tour as it stretches in to 2014. Sister Act plays the Fox Theatre in Atlanta through Sunday (April 28) before heading to Cincinnati.
Author: Mark Runyon