Thursday, April 21, 2011

REVIEW: Sister Act

Review of the April 16 matinee preview performance at the Broadway Theatre on Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Patina Miller, Victoria Clark, Fred Applegate, Sarah Bolt, John Treacy Egan, Demond Green, Chester Gregory, Kingsley Leggs, Marla Mindelle, Audrie Neenan and Cesar Samayoa. Music by Alan Menken.  Lyrics by Glenn Slater.  Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. Choreography by Anthony Van Laast. Directed by Jerry Zaks.

Grade: B-

It was quite the "religious" theatre day for me last Saturday with a double header of The Book of Mormon and Sister Act.  Not too surprisingly, there are a few similarities between the two: both tease about their perspective religions, but always with an undertone of respect, both contain disturbing violence (who'd have thought I'd see two shows in one day with point blank shootings?), and both deliver audience-pleasing performances.  Which you prefer, of course, is a matter of taste, but I can guarantee that you will leave feeling better about life with both shows.

I am a bit surprised to report that of the two, Sister Act is the more perplexing musical.  Based on a very popular film (one of my favorite entertainments ever), I arrived at the Broadway Theatre expecting a musical version of the film, a relatively simple task given that the film seems a natural for adding songs.  I wasn't expecting to find revelatory scenes about the characters, some themes that needed to be brought out, or even a major plot twist.  I was hoping for a few more scenes from the film to be musicalized and that we see Sister Act on stage doing wonderful things that can't be done on film.  I got my wish, sort of.  But as I said, I find this show to be very perplexing.

Sister Act: The Angel Meets the Devil

It is like the central story is a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  The angel, of course, representing the good to great aspects of the stage musical, while the devil is all of the compromise and failure of elements of the stage musical.  In such a "battle" one side ultimately wins, but something here diminishes the whole simply because the "battle" took place.

There are three devilish problems, pardon the pun, with this production, and a few minor ones on the "bad side."  On the smaller side, there is the overall scenic design by Klara Zieglerova who has created the single most unattractive set on a Broadway stage in many, many a season.  OK, so this Philadelphia church has fallen on hard times and is in need of repair, but what exactly are they going to repair and refurbish?  The giant, seamless, not a crack showing, but dismally grey arched walls that slide back and forth across the shadows?  Maybe they will spring for 10 new crucifixes to replace the plain white paint sticks nailed together to look like 10 crucifixes currently on display?  I'm exaggerating, but not by much.  I know nuns take a vow of poverty and all that, but they are also Catholic, and the Church is known for its ornate religious symbols and cathedrals.  The sheer magnitude of what we can see implies that this church is a huge inner-city cathedral.  But the design would make a Tibetan monk's digs look like a luxury suite at the Hilton in comparison.  Then there is Lez Brotherston's costume design.  Granted, the majority of the cast is playing nuns, but does every non-nun have to be so monochromatic as well?  Even the nightclub get up that Deloris wears to get a gig as a lounge singer is blah.  I mean we expect lots of gold and purple velvet - the show takes place in the 70's - but who knew it could be so cliche?  And the usually brilliant Natasha Katz seems to have thrown in her lighting towel, because she matches the set and costume design in darkness and blahness, scene for scene.  Of course, how does one appropriately light UGLY?

Applegate, Clark, Gregory and Miller

The first of the two biggest problems with the show are the mostly repetitive production numbers and the mind numbing presentational style of most of the scenes.  I suppose I can give choreographer Anthony Van Laast the benefit of the doubt.  Just how much can you do with dancing nuns and still give them integrity?  But even still, as they rise in popularity and become better and better performers under Deloris' teachings, shouldn't the last number be markedly different from the very first?  And wasn't voguing a 90's thing?  Van Laast did wondrous things with Jesus Christ Superstar, finding interesting and still appropriate variations on a theme, and that is one serious show.  One would think that heaven was the limit with a fun show like this one.  But the even more reprehensible and, frankly, shocking thing here is the appalling direction of multiple Tony-winner Jerry Zaks.  Literally every single time a character has an emotional moment of epiphany, he or she is standing dead center stage almost to the orchestra pit delivering it.  More times than not, the songs are delivered this way, too.  The upside is that the audience by now has been trained that loud, arms spread, facing full front singing equals quality (American Idol, damn you!).  And if that isn't enough, there are many times when the comedic lines and numbers are delivered directly to the audience, practically begging us to love it all.  Doesn't Zaks have enough faith in his actors and material?  Apparently not.  The only fourth wall that should ever be broken in this show is the ceiling between characters and the Heavens.

But perhaps the most devastating problem with the show is its leading lady, Patina Miller, who isn't one tenth the performer her predecessor is.  I'm speaking of Whoopi Goldberg, the queen of simultaneously outrageous and humanitarian takes on lines and situations.  She always goes "full throttle" with every sight gag and iffy line as if she were performing Medea, but always with a sly, knowing wink to her audience that she knows she's just being silly.  I bring Ms. Goldberg up, even though the need for comparison should be completely absent from this review, because her stamp is everywhere on this show.  Figuratively, she created the definitive, apparently, Deloris Van Cartier, and literally, she is a producer of this show, a fact you cannot help but be reminded of by every poster you see as you enter the theatre, and the two times her name appears on the title page of the Playbill.  Add to that her endless (though completely appropriate) plugging of the show on The View and several other media outlets.  As with Zaks, you have to ask if  Whoopi doesn't have enough confidence in her show to quietly produce the show and remove herself from the inevitable comparison spectre as she can.  She should take a page from the Bette Midler book of producing on Broadway: throw in the money, have your say during private rehearsals, and let yourself be seen once or twice for the record, then let the show do its own thing.  But back to Ms. Miller, the real issue here.  One, she says her funny lines like she's telling jokes.  She is no standup comic and neither is her character.  She has obvious energy and a toothsome smile, but about the same charisma as the gold and purple disco outfit she enters in:  you can see the fun potential, but the execution ain't so pretty.  And worst of all, she has the most grating nasally voice I've heard since Britney Spears' "(Hit Me Baby) One More Time."  And since Deloris is far from a pop princess I just can't forgive that and neither can my ears. 

Mmmm...I need to get to the angel side, because I can feel some major snark building up in my finger tips on this keyboard....

Let There Be Light!

But all is certainly not lost with this stage musical - I did give it a "B" despite bad design, bad direction and bad leading lady acting and singing, after all.  On the plus side, set designer Klara Zieglerova has made excellent use of both a huge turntable (left by Les Miserables?) that allows both scenery and preset actors to glide in and out of those monolithic arches cleverly and uninjured.  And there is the very effective use of a center set section that rises from the floor and spins around revealing a variety of 70's kitch-filled locales that are as detailed and period-perfect as they are fun.  OH!  And there is the heavenly transformation of a giant Virgin Mary statue that gets more, um, bling, as the church climbs out of poverty.  And costume designer Lez Brotherston has created the most fabulous costume change of this and many a recent season - CLEVER!  And let's not forget Ms. Katz, who really ups her game for the climactic chase scene, where she proves that absence of light and use of shadow can be the key to exciting lighting design.  And she sure know how to strobe the hell out of a celebration scene!

And despite poor direction, the OTHER leading lady of the show, Victoria Clark, mines every single shred of comedy, dignity, and pathos out of the austere role of the Mother Superior.  She does everything she can with a role that is literally defined by its sternness, malevolent benevolence and a wimple that allows only a small square of her purposely dour face to be seen.  And yet, she is now the emotional center of the piece, strong, kind, and best of all imperfect.  You know she means business, and yet you know there is a warm heart beating under there somewhere.  Clark plays the inner conflict of the Mother Superior to perfection, as she works through some painful nun-to-God lessons of her own.  (Her list song, "Haven't Got a Prayer" is masterfully performed.)  And ultimately you know she has been playing the role perfectly when she steps in between a loaded hand gun and Deloris, telling the shooter to take her instead, and it doesn't for a second feel like a plot contrivance.  Perhaps Ms. Clark is too good for this show, but Praise the Lord she took the job, anyway.

The rest of the cast is also uniformly good.  Fred Applegate as the monotone Monsignor threatens to steal the show.  He elicits giggles every time he enters in anticipation of what he is going to say.  Kingsley Leggs does as much as he can as the bad guy ring leader without becoming too cliche, but it is his henchmen that are the real treat here: John Treacy Egan, Caesar Samayoa and Demond Green all make a mountain out of three molehill-sized roles, helped immensely by their act one number "When I Find My Baby" the ultimate in double entendre, and their funny humanity in act two.  Again, when these three take the stage you can feel the audience lean forward in anticipation of what they will do next.  Chester Gregory, always fun on the Broadway stage, really delivers as the Philly cop who is smitten with Deloris and is determined to rescue her.  His is the one role largely rewritten from the film, and it really works, down to his 70's blues aria "I Could Be That Guy."

Eddie charms Deloris
(Left: Chester Gregory; Right: Patina Miller)

"The Bad Guys"
Green, Samayoa, Leggs and Egan

But this is Sister Act, and thank God we have a bevy of great nuns to watch along the way.  Under better direction, I think the nuns who aren't given any lines could have much better defined characters, though each tries valiantly to give us a fresh take on a nun in the background.  But as a collective group, they are dazzling and sensational - each one a candidate for the next revival of Dreamgirls.  They make unison dancing look easy, and using their arms do routines so complicated, the Rockettes only wish they could do as much with their more famous matching gams!  Three of the sisters, as in the film, really have meatier roles.  Sarah Bolt makes you smile every time she opens her optimistic and naive mouth as ample nun Mary Patrick, while the crusty old nun, Mary Lazarus, with crackerjack timing and firecracker wit is played to silly perfection by Audrie Neenan.  The breakout star of the show, though, has to be Marla Mindelle as lost postulant Mary Robert, whose role has been beefed up for the stage version.  She also gets one of the better self-discovery numbers, "The Life I Never Led."

No Nunsense here... Bolt, Mindelle and Miller

The Sister Act Sisters!

While it would have been nice to say that Sister Act has done on stage what the film could not (again I question the direction), I have to applaud the book writers, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane for bringing a sharp, laugh-filled script full of heart and soul to the stage.  They have wisely amplified two supporting roles, made the music fit in without feeling stuck in, and they really give the feel of the late 70's in Philadelphia.  Unlike the film, there are no scenes in Reno or Vegas, and that also really clarifies things.  And with equal class and style, Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), have created a completely original score for the piece.  And they have captured the unique 70's sound perfectly.  Amongst their best numbers are the you-love-them-even-though-they-are-bad-guys "Lady in the Long Black Dress," the delicious act two opener "Sunday Morning Fever" (the title says it all, huh?), and the creatively sweet (I can't imagine that there are any more religious-themed puns left in the English language) "Bless Our Show."  And I'll even give Ms. Miller some kudos: her delivery of the title number "Sister Act" was moving and terrific.  (And she'll probably get a Tony nomination...) And the finale, "Spread the Love Around," is as rousing and thrilling as every Broadway finale should be and more.

Ultimately, the rush of joy and almost profound emotional pull of the company is Heaven sent.  The "angel" side takes it by a mile.  It would have been nicer had the "devil" been in the details, not in the very basics.  But you can't quibble too much with a show that leaves you smiling and happy days after you've seen it.  That makes it one nice "act."

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


It is not too late to join the contest to win TWO FREE TICKETS to Broadway's The Normal Heart! Click HERE for complete rules and Trivia Question #1. Trivia question 2 is on Monday's blog, question 3 is on Tuesday's blog and question 4 was at the bottom of yesterday's blog.


The Normal Heart deals with the AIDS crisis.  All of the following plays also deal with the AIDS crisis, EXCEPT:

A. Take Me Out
B. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
C. Angels in America: Perestroika
D. As Is

Remember, you need to give the letter AND the answer on your entry!  Because of the delay in posting this final question, entries will be acceped until 4PM on Friday, April 22.  Winners will still be notified by 6:30PM on Friday, April 22.  (All times Eastern.)

(Photo of The Normal Heart Company)

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