Monday, June 08, 2009

Sister Act

First posted over at MusicOMH.com

Thanks to its feel-good themes, big-hearted lead character, classic Motown soundtrack – and, you suspect rather importantly, a large and enthusiastic existing fanbase - putting the early ‘90s big screen hit Sister Act onto the stage is actually quite a natural progression.

There were, however, always a couple of major issues for the producers to deal with: the role of Deloris Van Cartier is inextricably linked with the Whoopi Goldberg, for one, and with Motown putting together its own musical, using the songs which form the heart of the film was strictly off-limits.

Based on the criteria of overcoming these inherent problems, though, the creators of this new powerhouse musical have done an excellent job. Stepping into the beloved Whoopi’s shoes must be daunting, but Patina Miller - at the age of just 24 - does it admirably.

This is more than a just a case of holding her own; Miller has a wonderfully big, rich voice and imbues her character with just the right mix of sassiness and warmth. You can see why the nuns of the circumlocutorily-named Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith follow her lead, even against the will of their austere Mother Superior (Sheila Hancock).

And in the case of the soundtrack, who better to entrust with this vital new aspect of the show than Alan Menken. His work with Disney, which includes most of the successes from their rejuvenated period in the 1990s (Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin among others), shows that he can do family-friendly with that added bit of class, and Little Shop of Horrors demonstrates his edgier, darkly comic side. A perfect combination for Sister Act, then, and so it proves.

But only eventually. We are made to wait for Menken’s genius to shine, as the show suffers from a pretty uninspiring first half hour. The musical only lurches into fourth gear, quite suddenly, when lounge-singer Deloris, witness to a murder by her partner, is put into a protection programme in the last place anyone would think to look for her: a convent.

After that shaky start, the pace and the enjoyment quickly pick up – although it has to be said that all of the subsequent fun is provided by the performances, and Menken’s tunes and Glenn Slater’s quick, clever lyrics: the script, despite coming from Cheers writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, adds little.

But that matters less and less as time goes on, as Menken and Slater are given more chance to indulge their obvious gift for ironic parody. Moving the action to the 1970s means that we get witty musical allusions to Earth Wind and Fire, Shaft (for the police chases, of course), Gloria Gaynor, Barry White, and – in a bizarre but wonderful nun-rapping moment - Grandmaster Flash.

In fact, aside from the brilliant, anthemic Raise Your Voice, which brings to mind Menken’s exceptional gospel soundtrack to Disney’s Hercules, it is the peripheral tracks that do nothing to move the story forward which are actually the most enjoyable, and which give the show a bit of much-needed edge. Ironically for a musical all about sisterhood, it is the men who tend to get the most interesting songs.

Overall, this musical more than makes up for its dubious opening. The big ensemble numbers do plenty to lift the spirits, and are augmented by some very funny choreography. And while the sentimentality can be a bit much at times - and one would certainly expect more from the book - there is always a welcome touch of sourness and ingenuity added by the songwriters to even things out.

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