Sister Act

So here’s the thing about Sister Act: I’m not the show’s target audience. This is going to sound totally snotty, but the show is aimed at undiscerning, mass audiences, not sophisticated, discerning avid New York theatre goers, who see multiple shows a month (sometimes multiple shows each week), and who regularly see more daring and bold works.

That’s not to say that Sister Act (directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast) is bad, but it’s not for me. Almost everything about the show was fine. The score was fine; the book was fine; the choreography was fine. Nothing was impressive, save for a couple of numbers. And the performances were all good, but the talented cast didn’t have much to do with the sub-par material. Moreover, as unfair as this is, I couldn’t help but compare Sister Act to other shows, now that it’s Tony season.

For example, Sister Act earned a Best Score Tony nomination and Catch Me if You Can did not. Having had such fun at Catch Me, I couldn’t understand why Sister Act’s score (written by Alan Menken, music, and Glenn Slater, lyrics,) was nominated and Catch Me’s wasn’t. True, neither score is overwhelmingly impressive. Much as I like Catch Me, I freely admit that the score is just fine. But so is Sister Act’s. And so I’m left to wonder just how close the voting in the Tony nominations was.

Aside from Tony stuff, here’s the scoop: From what I can remember, the story sticks pretty closely to the movie. I haven’t seen the movie since it was released in theatres so I can’t tell you if Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane’s book is taken verbatim from the movie, but the overall action is about the same. Deloris (Patina Miller) witnesses a crime and needs to hide. Naturally, the police officer Eddie (Chester Gregory), whom Deloris knew in school, sends Deloris to a nunnery, where she meets Mother Superior (Victoria Clark), Sister Mary Robert (Marla Mindelle) and Sister Mary Patrick (Sarah Bolt), among others. Deloris’s unorthodox ways don’t jibe with Mother Superior. Trying to keep Deloris busy and out of her hair, Mother Superior asks Deloris to take over the choir. Deloris, a singer, quickly cottons to this and transforms the off-key choir into a show-stopping force that will eventually perform for the Pope. All the while, Deloris finds her place in the most unexpected of places.

The first three-quarters of Sister Act’s first act were boring and not at all engaging. Our leading lady, Deloris, is not a particularly likable character. Our introduction to her involves the revelation that she is carrying on an affair with a married man (the character’s name is Curtis Jackson but alas, it’s not 50 Cent) and is quickly followed by her sassing it up and singing about how terrific she is in the number, “Fabulous, Baby!” Not so fabulous, if you ask me. I’m not down with O.P.P., and I’m not down with arrogance, so right off the bat, I felt disconnected from Deloris.

Continuing on, the score sounded like a B-rate rip-off of Motown and disco hits. The songs all had fun beats and were performed well, but they lacked originality. For a show that is all about soul, the score didn’t have any. But then, in the middle of “I Could Be that Guy,” a number in which Eddie pines over Deloris, it got fun. Eddie became lovable. (While the music was still derivative, the showmanship made up for it.)

That was followed by “Raise Your Voice,” a fantastic, rousing number in which the nuns didn’t just raise their voices – they found them! Finally, the soul had been put back in the “soul music.” This number has Deloris suggesting that singing loudly and passionately in church and in praise of God is a glorious thing; if the nuns are so enamored of God and His work, why not sing it from the rafters? And so the nuns find their groove.

Unfortunately, that was the high point. There were other good numbers in the show. Certainly there were splashy, 11 o’clock number wannabes that were fun enough. But the awesomeness of “Raise Your Voice” made everything else pale in comparison, and it also made the rest of the score all the more disappointing, because “Raise Your Voice” shows what talent is behind the show.

One of the wannabe 11 o’clock numbers came in act two. Sister Mary Roberts sings “The Life I Never Led,” in which she recounts how she’s been so good – such a rule follower – all her life, and yet it’s borne less than satisfying results. It’s a great moment and Mindelle has a great voice, but because I was so disengaged from the story, I didn’t care about the character. And so when she sang, like Morales before me, I felt nothing.

Throughout the show, I found there to be terribly awkward transitions – mostly because there didn’t seem to be any. A song would end; the actor would hold for applause; and before the applause could get started, s/he would walk off stage and there’d be a blackout. I’m not sure if this was just a timing issue and the crew was off that night, but it all felt disjointed. In particular, the end of act one was so abrupt. The song ended but there was no cue that it had finished. No lighting cue; no curtain coming down. Just this awkward pause. I waited for some dialogue to get us to the act break, but it never came. Instead, after what felt like an interminable delay, the curtain came down and the audience clapped.

To be sure, there is a lot of talent on the stage at the Broadway Theatre. Both Patina Miller and Victoria Clark are nominated for their performances, Miller for Leading Actress in a Musical and Clark for Featured Actress in a Musical, and both nominations are deserved. Clark is a perfect example of what I mentioned before: a fantastic talent with totally un-fantastic material. She has a great voice, and it’s fun to see her cut up and let loose at the end of the show, but I wish she was singing a better score.

And Miller has an incredible voice. I knew this going in because I had seen her as Dionne when Hair played in the Park a few summers ago. (She opened the show by summoning the Age of Aquarius and it was a beautiful thing. She wasn’t in the Broadway run because she was involved with Sister Act in London.) In Sister Act, she definitely shows off her vocal chops but, while girlfriend can sing it, she can’t sell it. Miller’s unnatural acting left much to be desired. Her vocal skills are undeniable, though, and her powerful voice carries throughout the large theatre.

So, dear readers, I can’t recommend Sister Act. It’s a fine back up option, but there’s much more on the boards right now that so much better. I suppose if you’re just looking for something big and showy it’s a decent fit, but it won’t wow you, and likely won’t inspire you to get in to the theatre going habit. (Pun intended, of course.)

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