Monday, February 22, 2016

Nun Too Shabby: Many Fine Habits Ordain Marriott's 'Sister Act' Rather Delightful -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sister Act
a recent musical based on the movie
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Thru April 3

It's easy to be cynical about the plethora of stage musicals that have been adapted from popular movies--or even not so popular movies--particularly in the 21st century.

Though several of these, especially earlier on in the millennium, have been fantastic--The Producers, Hairspray, Billy Elliot and more--many others have been middling at best.

More than a few have been so mediocre that long ago I was instilled with a sense that selling tickets based on a beloved movie title superseded any true artistic merit in bringing many a musical adaptation to Broadway, or simply trying to (as several tryout movie-based shows never quite made it to the Great White Way).

Yet while I never enjoy having my time or money wasted on a disappointing musical that may have been inspired by primarily mercenary aims, as an unabashed lover of musical theater I wholeheartedly support new shows being introduced into the canon. And the truth seems to be:
A) Except for those featuring original stories, musicals have always been based on other media forms, including books, plays and movies.

B) It is show business, after all, and given the millions of dollars it takes to develop a show with Broadway ambitions, producers can't be entirely condemned for hedging their bets with brand-name product, whether derived from movies--whose Hollywood studios actively try to sell the rights for musical transfers--or stockpiled with popular songs. (My December review of Beautiful had a strain similar to this one, albeit about Jukebox Musicals.)

C) Along with substantial monetary investment, any show that is produced on (or on the road to) Broadway involves inordinate effort by incredibly talented people: composers, lyricists, book writers, directors, choreographers, set designers, costume designers, actors, etc., etc., etc., typically with extremely impressive pedigrees. And whether based on a play, book, movie or original idea, some musicals turn out wonderfully and some--with such judgments obvious variable by viewer--just don't.
Which is my typically long-winded way of leading into conveying that Sister Act, originally a 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie that was newly musicalized--with original songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glen Slater--for the stage in 2006, opened in London in 2009, ran on Broadway in 2011-12, was seen by me in late-2012 in Chicago and is now getting a regional production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, is, perhaps unsuspectingly, a rather delightful musical.

Mind you, given that the popular movie was about a lounge singer who, in being forced to hide out in a convent, helps bring much soulfulness to the choir by introducing the nuns to R&B classics, Sister Act might seem to more naturally lend itself to becoming a stage musical.

Yet while in many ways this is the case, by eschewing everything on the movie's soundtrack or other known hits, and inviting rather challenging comparisons to Goldberg's unique comedic chops, the musical's producers and creators weren't exactly paving an easy path to glory. (And as Far From Heaven, another recently seen example proved, fine musicals can come from less-obvious source movies.)

But having registered some pleasant surprise in how satisfying I found Sister Act onstage when I saw it at the Auditorium on its first national tour, I can't feign complete shock in liking it again at Marriott--a venerated suburban Chicago venue that always does good work.

Still, maybe I'm amazed to have enjoyed it even more. 

Certainly, the relatively intimate confines of the Marriott venue can often add to one's embrace of a show, even if the in-the-round staging doesn't allow for scenery akin to downtown houses. Although the Auditorium's acoustics are astonishing, that grand venue just feels a bit cavernous for most musicals; my recollect doesn't allow for direct comparison, but though I really liked Sister Act in 2012, it's likely the closer fit at Marriott helped to make it feel better.

But so too did the abundant professionalism as referenced above, both in terms of the show's creation and this rendition of it.

Composer Alan Mencken has scored many Disney films and/or stage musicals, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Newsies and more. This pedigree might not point directly to the ability to craft great derivations of Philly Soul--the musical relocates the movie's Reno & San Francisco settings to Philadelphia, circa 1977--but collaborating again with Little Mermaid lyricist Glenn Slater, Mencken shows how adaptable prodigious talent can be.

And led in Lincolnshire by Stephanie Umoh in the Whoopi role of Deloris Van Cartier, upbeat numbers such as "Take Me to Heaven," "Fabulous, Baby" and "Raise Your Voice" are delivered delightfully.

But Sister Act really connotes a high-caliber enterprise through its depth, as quality songs and prominent production numbers spread the spotlight to several characters beyond Deloris.

These include Mother Superior, wonderfully played here as on the first national tour by Hollis Resnik, long one of Chicagoland's best musical theater performers. In addition to supporting some fine "all the nuns" choral numbers, such as "Sunday Morning Fever," Resnik shines on the solo "I Haven't Got a Prayer."

And while the ensemble's actresses demonstrate excellent habits in embodying the singing nuns, Lillian Castillo and Tiffany Tatreau stand out individually as Mary Patrick and Mary Robert, the latter shining in Act II's terrific "The Life I Never Led." (I had enjoyed both actresses just last November in the Ride the Cyclone musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, while Tatreau also appeared in Marriott's recent short run of Spring Awakening.)

But lest one think this is entirely a sisterly affair, a few men factor in prominently, including with high-profile songs.

Byron Glenn Willis plays Curtis, a boyfriend that Deloris catches in a criminal act, forcing her seek help from the police, particular an old high school chum named Eddie (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis).

Willis does a nice job on one of the show's best songs, "When I Find My Baby," as does Butler-Duplessis in his lament, "I Could Be That Guy," featuring costume designer Nancy Missimi's niftiest creations.

Curtis' crew of tough guys, played by Todd A. Horman, Mark Hood and Jason Slattery share their own rather amusing production number, "Lady in the Long Black Dress," while the always likable Don Forston gets considerable stage time as Monsignor O'Hara, who heads the church where Deloris seeks refuge.

One probably needn't have even seen the Sister Act movie to guess how things will transpire onstage, but under the direction of Don Stephenson, it all happens with lots of exuberance, culminating in the high-energy finale "Spread the Love Around."

Probably the worst thing I can say about Sister Act is that I don't consider it among the very best musicals ever written. Though nearly all the songs sound stellar in the moment, most are relatively forgettable in the long run.

But at the Marriott Theatre, even more so than on its initial U.S. tour, there was essentially nothing I didn't like about the show, which sustained and strengthened its appeal throughout.

Good songs, great performances, an amusing book by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner, fine choreography by Melissa Zaremba, strong musical direction by Doug Peck, well-served by a 9-member orchestra.

All in all, a terrific evening of entertainment, and a nice reminder that even among a seeming glut of screen-to-stage musical adaptations, each one is its own entity, and entirely capable of showcasing fine habits.

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