Everybody loves a dancing nun. At least that’s the basis on which the new Broadway musical “Sister Act” finds its most comfortable ground.
Based on the film of the same name (and produced by Whoopi Goldberg, who made Deloris Van Cartier, the film’s protagonist, an iconic role in the film version), “Sister Act” is at its buoyant, thrilling best when Van Cartier and her crew of belting nuns are performing full-out.
The story of the show remains mostly the same as that of the film. Van Cartier witnesses her skeezy married boyfriend murdering someone and hides out as a nun in a struggling convent, where she trains the ragtag choir of nuns to churn out showstoppers on Sunday. The biggest difference here is that the time period is pushed back into the disco era, which allows the (mostly great) score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater to have the flavor of the era.
As Van Cartier Patina Miller (in a terrific Broadway debut) sings her difficult songs effortlessly, and embodies the character in a way that almost allows the audience to forget about Goldberg’s turn in the film. Serving as an effective counterpart to Van Cartier’s brassy sensibility, Victoria Clark’s Mother Superior is also effortlessly sung and gives the show the majority of its most emotional moments. Also great are the nuns, led by the trio of the hilarious Sarah Bolt and Audrie Neenan as Sisters Mary Patrick and Mary Lazarus, and the sweet Marla Mindelle as Sister Mary Robert, who gets a great character arc and an even better second-act song.
Menken and Slater have produced one of the most satisfying pop scores Broadway has seen in years, which has a handful of songs so good they nearly brought the audience to their feet mid-show. Unfortunately, the songs (such as “Raise Your Voice” and “Spread the Love Around”) almost exclusively belong to the women of the show: Deloris, Mother Superior, or the nuns. The men (Deloris’ boyfriend, his henchmen, and the cop, whose romantic storyline with Deloris is DOA), all get somewhat second-rate songs. Luckily, the good songs are so good you are able to forgive the bad ones.
Though TV writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner wrote the script for the show’s London run, it has since been completely rewritten to hilarious effect by Douglas Carter Beane, one of the best comic writers in the theatre today. Despite a handful of creaky jokes, the show’s dialogue now crackles and measures up to the level of the score.
Jerry Zaks does a great job of keeping the show on a fast pace and enjoyable, and Anthony Van Laast keeps the nuns moving and grooving with his fun, though not really more than serviceable, choreography. Even though it’s certainly nothing groundbreaking, “Sister Act” is simply a lot of fun. It’s almost impossible to walk out of the theatre not humming the songs and wanting to dance. Miller’s breakout performance alone is worth the ticket price, and, of course, as I said before, there really is nothing like a dancing nun.
“Sister Act” is playing at the Broadway Theater in New York City.