"Raise Your Voice" is the penultimate song of the first act of "Sister Act: The Musical." It gives audiences everything they're looking for in a stage show based on "Sister Act," the surprisingly popular 1992 comedy film starring Whoopi Goldberg. There are quirky nuns adorably learning how to sing, uplifting spiritual songs, and plentiful joyful noises.
I was grateful for that song, because the bulk of show's first act was, frankly, a mess, and it arguably should have been a slam dunk. The movies-to-musicals trend has been in full swing for a while. While many of those properties are derided as cynical attempts to get non-theater fans into theater seats, "Sister Act" actually makes sense for a live musical treatment. Music and dancing are already an integral part of the story, and hey, everyone loves singing nuns -- "The Sound of Music" taught us that.
So it was frustrating sitting through the first half of the production Tuesday night at the Auditorium Theatre, trying to figure out exactly why a show that should work was not coming together. All the pieces are there -- a fun property well suited for adaptation, some decent-or-better songs by legendary composer Alan Menken, and a largely very talented cast. But for the first half of the show, those pieces did not fit together. The culprits were a weak script, bizarre shifts in tone, and some clunky numbers. The good news is that things improved dramatically from "Raise Your Voice" onward, and the second act delivers -- with a few glaring exceptions -- for fans of both the original movie and musicals in general.
The show tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring disco diva in late 1970's Philadelphia. Deloris accidentally witnesses her mobster boyfriend killing a man in cold blood. After the mobster orders his goons to killer her, too, Deloris runs to the police for safety and agrees to testify against her ex. Officer Eddie Souther, a shy, nervous man who had a crush on Deloris when they were both in high school, offers her witness protection in the most unlikely of places: a convent. Brash Deloris immediately runs afoul of the Mother Superior at the ailing church, but finds her place working with the nuns' ragtag choir, transforming the group into a slick musical unit that performs spiritual songs with soulful energy and flashy choreography. Mother Superior resents what she sees as Deloris's cheapening of her life's mission, while the popularity of the new choir brings Deloris unwanted attention from her murderous ex.
I knew we were in for trouble when the show literally began with Deloris -- auditioning for a spot in her mobster boyfriend's club -- yelling out not only her name, but the fact that it is Christmas 1978, before going immediately into a disco song that seemed like four different tunes in one. That kind of sledgehammer exposition is typical of the extremely weak writing found throughout the first act. The book, attributed to Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, is a string of lazy jokes, broad stereotypes, and frequent dips into lowest-common-denominator humor. Nobody goes to "Sister Act: The Musical" expecting Proust, but the script -- especially in Act 1 -- felt like a rough draft that nobody bothered to polish.
The show's tone also vacillated wildly in the first half, with some moments that left me actually uncomfortable. This is exemplified by "When I Find My Baby," a song performed by Deloris's mobster boyfriend, Curtis, and his gang. It's an upbeat, r'n'b ditty about how he's going to murder his girlfriend. I literally put my face in my palm when Curtis crooned a line about how he was going to disembowel Deloris while miming a knife slash across his gut. I understand gallows humor, but when the bulk of your show is about flighty nuns learning how to sing and an aspiring starlet realizing the power of sisterhood, making light of violence against women is in awfully poor taste. And that's just one example.
The second act really turns things around, with several great group numbers featuring the singing nuns, and some big ballads that show off the considerable strengths of Alan Menken. There are some lovely character moments for both shy Mary Robert and the relationship between Deloris and Mother Superior. These actually take advantage of the trappings of musical theater to improve upon the arcs shown in the original film.
The majority of the performers demonstrate considerable talents. As Deloris, Ta'Rea Campbell took a little while to fully click into the role. But once she was in the habit, Campbell seemed more at ease in the character. She brings a brighter energy to the proceedings than Goldberg did in the film, and her voice is absolutely stunning, especially when she unleashes her upper register. She shares a great chemistry with Lynne Wintersteller, who plays Mother Superior. Wintersteller does not ape Maggie Smith's clipped, dry delivery. Instead, her nun seems younger, more vibrant, and wholly committed to her faith. Wintersteller gets two really lovely ballads during the course of the show and nails them both.
Speaking of lovely ballads, Ashley Moniz as Sister Mary Robert gets a classic Menken song with "The Life I Never Led," one of several catchy tunes in the show. Less successful are Florrie Bagel as Sister Mary Patrick, who attempts to capture Kathy Najimy's charming mania but merely comes off as manic, and Melvin Abston as Curtis and Chester Gregory as Eddie. Gregory is a strong singer, as evidenced by his number "I Could Be That Guy." But his line readings, especially in Act 1, were amateurish. Abston has the opposite problem. He certainly gives off a threatening vibe while speaking, but his singing and movement during the aforementioned song about murdering Deloris were stiff at best.