Let’s forego the list of films that have been revised and reconstructed as a stage musical and get right to the point that “Sister Act,” the popular 1992 film, has unsurprisingly been adapted into “Sister Act,” the musical. If you can forgive my lapse of faith by first admitting that the film somehow failed to make my must-see list even when it re-appeared on TV, the stage musical is a joy and a revelation. Although it is downright silly, outrageously hokey, and pervasively shallow, “Sister Act,” under the snappy direction of Jerry Zaks, ranks among the best of the season’s musicals.
There was advance news that the book for the musical by “Cheers” team Cheri and Bill Steinkellner that originally supported the production when it opened in London last year was being re-written/enhanced/buoyed by Douglas Carter Beane. Whether it was ultimately collaborative or not, the result is a very funny and entertaining show. Whether we can assume that many of the funnier punch lines are attributable to Beane, who won awards for his book for the musical “Xanadu,” is a moot point, as you will be laughing almost continually throughout.
The film was primarily identifiable as a vehicle for comedienne/icon Whoopi Goldberg. The stage version can only boast her name as lead producer. (Goldberg, however, did don the habit during the show’s final weeks in London.)
“Sister Act” is set in 1977 Philadelphia or, as it may now be recognized, the City of Sisterly Love. The plot follows the unexpected career-altering path of an out-of-work nightclub singer Deloris van Cartier (Patina Miller) who discovers that her affiliation with Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), her married gangster lover, may not have been a wise choice. After auditioning for him and his three yes-men stooges (John Treacy Egan, Caesar Samayoa, and Demond Green), Deloris witnesses a murder in the club’s back alley committed by Curtis. Fearing for her life as a witness to a murder, she runs to the nearest police precinct where Eddie (Chester Gregory), a police officer who remembers having a crush on her in high school, figures out a plan. She is hustled off to a convent for safe-keeping, presumably part of the witness protection program.
Within the protective Gothic walls of the church (the awesomely resplendent work of set designer Klara Zieglerova) and placed in the dutiful but doubtful care of the Mother Superior (Victoria Clark), she takes on the guise of Sister Mary Clarence. That she also takes charge of a tone-deaf choir and turns them into a world-renowned sensation comes hardly as a surprise. Improbable to say the least, but irresistible to say the most, the Sisters’ act of transforming their hymns into show-stopping anthems and spirited production numbers provides the show, as do the solos of many supporting characters, with many of its most exhilarating moments.
One might suspect that choreographer Anthony Van Laast may have either seen or been inspired by the traditional (but no longer) “Glory of Easter” pageant at Radio City Music Hall in which the stage was filled with nuns who formed symbolic reverential designs before the alter in a grand cathedral. The catch here is that these nuns discover that they have a distinct flair for emulating the Rockettes as well as for singing the roof off the bell tower.
Naturally, this order of nuns is composed of personalities who divinely define what is meant as a caricature; each one, however, getting a new lease on life within their calling. One of the funniest numbers is “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” in which the nuns list all the dubious but dutiful tasks they have to do.
Our chief concerns are with Deloris who appears to be having the biggest occupational conversion since Mary Magdalene. How inspirational is that? Miller, who originated the role of Deloris in the West End production, is making one splendid Broadway debut as the sexy and incorrigibly earthy centerpiece for the show and for most of the bright and lively musical numbers. The score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) is a major asset being as witty as it is often a bit wacky — as in “Lady in the Long Black Dress” as sung by the three thugs. This musical certainly fulfills its aim to mix and match the requirements of high-minded gospel with the less exalted but more pulse-racing delights of pop-disco, even rap.
Clark, who has been lauded for just about every role she has taken both on Broadway (“The Light in the Piazza”) and Off Broadway, keeps apace with the show’s lighthearted agenda even as she has to put on a disapproving face on occasion, one that manages to remain aglow in her glorious solo “Haven’t Got a Prayer.”
Although the women dominate the spotlight, Fred Applegate is splendid in the role of the Monsignor O’Hara, who may register his concern that the impoverished church is to be sold to a pair of bachelors who like Gothic and buy antiques, but also registers as a very hip promoter for the choir that gains the attention of the Pope. Spectacular transformations are in order in this show. Even as the disarming Chester Gregory fantasizes his dream of romance with Deloris in the delightful “I Could Be That Guy” we see through Deloris and the nuns how possible it is to “Spread the Love Around.”
The plot may be threadbare, but not the habits by costume designer Lez Brotherston, which become more dazzling with each successive musical number. Add to these eye-popping displays a huge statue of the Virgin Mary that not only becomes encrusted with glitter but begins to revolve in an ecstatic response to the joyful goings-on beneath her. Notwithstanding those early sweetly sour-ish sounds from the pre-Sister Mary Clarence choir, “Sister Act” belts out the rest of its notes in a way that the cast sums up best in a song “Fabulous, Baby.” ***
“Sister Act,” Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway. $51.50 to $126.50. 212-229-6200.