Those swingin’ and singin’ Catholic soul sisters are at it again.
Scratch that tiresome old Latin liturgical music. In “Sister Act,” they’re getting down to a disco beat and garnishing their dull black-and-white habits with Day-Glo sequins.
Blame club singer-on-the-lam Deloris Van Cartier for that. As played by brassy, power-voiced Ta’Rea Campbell at the Paramount Theatre, Deloris is the center of this over-the-top Broadway tuner based on the hit Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name.
That feel-good 1992 flick, about a Reno chanteuse who witnesses a mob murder and is stashed by the police in a rundown San Francisco convent for her own safety, was an entertaining vehicle for a droll, wisecracking Goldberg and for a pre-“Downton Abbey” Maggie Smith, who could convey a Mother Superior’s disapproval with a slight arch of her brow.
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The movie was also a model of subtlety compared to this garish, hard-sell stage version, co-produced by Goldberg. It sports a score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, and a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, reworked for Broadway (after runs in California and London) by writer Douglas Carter Beane and director Jerry Zaks.
In the stage show, the movie plot has been reset from the early 1990s to the ’70s, and moved to Philadelphia, which must have a dismal witness protection program. The nuns sing out with gusto, once Deloris revamps the choir with a disco-meets-Philly-soul repertoire instead of the Motown oldies in the film.
That’s cool. What’s not are the show’s ear-battering volume, stale caricatures and, too often, its aggressive inanity.
Campbell clearly has talent to burn, but her Deloris is irritatingly loud and crass for most of the sometimes-sluggish, 2 ½-hour production. Her homicidal club-owner boyfriend (the mercifully understated Kingsley Leggs) has a trio of doofus henchmen, including a cringe-inducing, dimwitted cousin (Charles Barksdale).
And the convent is stocked with overworked and hokey nun stereotypes — the meek, the mild, the quipping — portrayed more cartoonishly than on film as fearful shut-ins fed on a ghastly diet of mutton and piety. Their choice of a life of contemplative prayer and service is continually mocked, particularly in the “It’s Good to be a Nun” number, which praises such penances as self-flagellation.
To be fair, there were patrons at Tuesday’s show who laughed loudly at such jests, while I was wincing. For me, the redeeming parts of “Sister Act” were musical. The ever-versatile Menken’s score craftily echoes soul-disco hitmakers, from The O’Jays and Barry White, to Donna Summer and Michael Jackson. And the cast is vocally well-equipped for all he throws at them.
The sleek “When I Find My Baby” (a sly perversion of a silky Lou Rawls croon, finessed by Leggs); the showstopper “I Could Be That Guy” (a terrific breakout for Chester Gregory, as a sweaty cop infatuated with Deloris) and the infectious chorus rouser, “Take Me to Heaven” are bright spots. (A couple sappy self-realization ballads near the end are just pro forma.)
Hollis Resnik, as the beleaguered Mother Superior trying to solve a problem named Deloris, is an oasis of wryness generally, and in her solo tune, “Haven’t Got a Prayer.”
But her misgivings about turning religion into showbiz are steamrolled by the smashing success of Deloris’ choir of glitzed-up sisters, and by the remodeling of her Gothic church — which, in Klara Zieglerova’s set design, aptly turns a huge statue of the Virgin Mary into an altar of kitsch.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org