I’m not Catholic, and I am no longer an aspiring nun, so I have no real knowledge of what vows those entering the convent are supposed to take before pledging their lives to God’s service. But I would have to assume that one of them is the vow of modesty.
Apparently, that’s a vow that Whoopi Goldberg decided to allow when she shepherded her 1992 star vehicle Sister Act into service as a splashy, hyperventilating Broadway musical. (The show had been kicking around in London’s West End before opening on the Great White Way in 2011.) Because in this version, not only does her character Deloris Van Cartier have to decide whether to cast aside her self-involved career aspirations, she herself hands over the limelight to her ensemble cast throughout the entirety of her very own show. It’s a little bit counterintuitive, but anything that ensures more time with singing, dancing nuns isn’t likely to get much quarrel.
The original Sister Act, one of Goldberg’s biggest movie successes and produced on the heels of her Oscar win for Ghost, is an unabashed “fish out of water” story. In the film, Goldberg’s Deloris is a Reno lounge singer who is about to leave her no-good mafia-lite casino owner boyfriend behind. She walks into his room just as he’s getting one of his hired henchmen to bump a stool pigeon off. She enters witness protection and, faster than you can say “Forgive me Father,” she’s itching around the collar of her penguin outfit as she hides out in a failing convent in a rough San Francisco neighborhood.
Too brassy to blend, too much a charity case for the stern Mother Superior to toss her out, Deloris hits her stride when she’s assigned the task of whipping the church’s pitiful nuns’ choir into shape. The entire movie is one long Hail Mary pass banking on the mutual appeal of both Goldberg and nuns in general, and watching as the two polar opposites meet halfway. OK, calling that proposition a “Hail Mary pass” is probably an, ahem, leap of faith. Few movie comedy pitches have been surer bets. Even fewer musical comedy pitches have been more pre-guaranteed.
The first thing you’ll probably notice about the musical adaptation is that the entire scenario has been placed into the time machine, so that Deloris and her girl group cohorts are kicking it in 1970s Philadelphia, not modern day Reno. The reason for the switch is two-fold. First, it allows composer Alan Menken (e.g. the guy who wrote all the Disney songs children of the ’90s won’t stop singing) and lyricist Glenn Slater to pay tribute to the classic disco sounds characteristic of Philadelphia International Records’ “Sound of Philadelphia.” Second, and on a related note, it allows the show’s producers a way to sidestep having to secure the rights to all those Motown songs the movie’s nuns were so fond of warbling during their Sunday morning glee club routines. But as talented as Menken is, and as much as the rhythm guitars go wocka-chicka, the likes of Mary Wells’ “My Guy” is much missed.
In the musical, Deloris, played by Ta’rea Campbell, a seasoned Broadway vet who has been featured in the casts of The Lion King and The Book of Mormon, is a Donna Summer-obsessed disco diva-in-waiting, hoping to live her life by the code of Studio 54, not Psalm 54. Campbell plays her far perkier than Goldberg did, giving her full-bore ‘tude and a speaking voice that could shatter glass. Rather than react to her pseudo-incarceration at the convent like Regan MacNeil did to holy water in The Exorcist, this Deloris is awfully quick to turn lemons into Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Chalk that one up to the shortcuts necessary in a theatrical context.
Just as it doesn’t take long for Deloris to learn the art of selflessness, it also doesn’t take long for characters who, in the movie, were predominately peripheral to grab the spotlight for their own showstopping numbers. Deloris’s boyfriend Curtis (played silkily by Melvin Abston) gets a remarkably faithful Floaters pastiche that descends into a series of comically violent threats. “Sweaty Eddie,” the green cop assigned to protect Deloris, gets a crowd-thrilling fantasy number amid a chorus of vagrants. Even Curtis’s henchmen have a chance to cut loose. I know that Broadway’s frothier concoctions operate under a “more equals more” principal, but by the time the second act arrives and nearly every character is getting their eleventh-hour power ballad, the show’s momentum has taken a major hit. And it doesn’t exactly help matters that nothing from the latter half can match the first act capper “Take Me To Heaven” in catchy hummability.
Still, the show’s core appeal is not rocket science. You want to see nuns being cute, cutting up, and engaging in capers? Sister Act: The Musical has all that and the Pope’s blessing. (At least, I think that was the Pope.)