Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'Sister Act' Showcases a Host of Appealing Habits -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sister Act - The Musical
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 2

Twenty years ago, the movie Sister Act was released to substantive acclaim and success. It starred Whoopi Goldberg as a singer who—on the run from her criminal ex—hides out in a convent and teaches the nuns to sing much more soulfully.

I saw it once, perhaps when it was released on videotape—remember those?—and without being able to recall any specifics, I think I adequately enjoyed it (but not enough to see the sequel).

Because I pay attention to such things, I know that more recently, Sister Act was developed into a stage musical that was produced in London before coming to Broadway in April 2011, where it ran until August of this year. 

The touring version, now playing at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, is part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, but I really didn’t remember it was on my slate until I noticed it on my calendar a few days ago. Coming after the pre-Broadway tryout of Kinky Boots and prior to the arrival of the phenomenally successful The Book of Mormon, it hasn’t exactly been a beacon on my musical theater radar. Other than cueing up the cast album on Spotify a couple times in recent days, I didn’t arrive at the Auditorium with much awareness nor anticipation.

But I left having been faithfully entertained.

Sister Act is not a groundbreaking musical nor is it among the very best I’ll see, even this year—though it may make my Top 10—but it is an entirely enjoyable one, crafted by esteemed professionals and, on its first Chicago visit, featuring impressive talent in the lead role and throughout the cast.

Based on the movie script by Joseph Howard, the book of the musical was written by Cherie and Bill Steinkellner, whose Broadway credits aren’t extensive but who were writers/producers for TV’s Cheers. Douglas Carter Beane, who has written several plays and musicals, did some additional book work. Alan Menken, a composer celebrated for many Disney stage and screen musicals, wrote the music, with Glenn Slater handling the lyrics as he did with Love Never Dies, among other shows. Four time Tony winner Jerry Zaks is the director and Whoopi Goldberg is one of the producers. So the show's creative pedigree is pretty strong and the result is clearly Broadway caliber, if not quite of the highest order.

As I mentioned, I don’t remember the movie very well, but based on what I gleaned from Wikipedia, the musical relocates the action from San Francisco to Philadelphia and changes the names of some characters, but otherwise stays fairly true to the film. In Chicago, Ta'Rea Campbell plays the Whoopi role of lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier. With impressive Broadway credits, Campbell is quite strong vocally, though isn't nearly as comedically wry as Goldberg.

Kingsley Leggs reprises his Broadway role as Curtis Jackson, Deloris’ boyfriend turned pursuer, and delivers a stellar rendition of "When I Find My Baby," one of the show’s best—and most imaginatively staged, in a Four Tops vein—songs.

It was also great to see Hollis Resnik, a venerable Chicago performer, well handle the the show’s second-billed role, that of Mother Superior. She demonstrated her strong voice on "Here Within These Walls" and particularly "Haven't Got a Prayer."

While the musical has a bit of trouble dramatizing Deloris’ story prior to landing in the convent, and doesn’t do a perfect job with some second act transitional numbers, for the most part the plot line is engaging, the dialogue is funny—my Catholic friend admittedly “got” a few more jokes than I did—and the score is ebullient.

As a rule, the upbeat songs on which the nuns sing together are considerably stronger than anything else, though this formula suffers a bit on the finale, “Spread the Love Around,” the weakest of the group numbers ("Raise Your Voice" and "Sunday Morning Fever" are much more infectious). 

Along with strong work by Campbell, Resnik and Leggs, Lael van Keuren beautifully delivers "The Life I Never Led" in the role of Sister Mary Robert, and though as cop Eddie Souther, E. Clayton Cornelious doesn’t get to show off his talent all that much, it was readily apparent he has a lot of it. And maybe I just like her name, but I feel compelled to note Florrie Bagel who played Sister Mary Patrick.

Though it isn’t perfect, or quite brilliant, there is nothing particularly wrong with Sister Act. While the cavernous Auditorium isn’t the best venue for it—or any musical for that matter; fortunately, balcony seat holders were allowed to move downstairs—the show delivers solid entertainment that should please any musical theater fan. Especially ones who can appreciate the sly musical references in Menken & Slater's original score, which at least in terms of artistic merit is more commendable than a soundtrack of '70s disco and soul hits, such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert relied upon for crowd-pleasing pep.

I think the fact that Sister Act is on a post-Broadway tour contributed to it seeming a bit less exciting than Kinky Boots, which bowed in Chicago on its way to New York in the spring, but the quality of the two shows is somewhat similar.

With another Les Miserables tour having now arrived in Chicago, I can't call Sister Act the best large scale musical currently in town, but it's nun too bad. If you want to check it out--discount tickets should be readily available through HotTix--you have my blessing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What did the Playbill look like? Post a picture, Maybe?