I can't have been the only person still thinking about Sister Act the Musical long after the angelic voices faded at Playhouse on the Square and all the glittering black-and-white habits were hung up for the night. It's a thought-provoking piece of theater that raises many questions:
• How many rhymes for genuflect are there?
• What decade is this show set in, again?
• Is there anything Claire Kolheim can't do?
• Why is it funny when nuns act like normal people?
• What does it mean when authors write comic malaprops like, "incognegro?"
And that's just for starters.
There's no denying that the Sister Act movie franchise, and its seemingly inevitable musical adaptation, have a lot of fans who find something genuinely uplifting in the story of Deloris, the hard-partying disco diva who witnesses a mob-style execution performed by her boyfriend and hides out in a convent where she teaches rhythmically challenged nuns how to get funky Philly-style. But Sister Act has always had its share of textual problems too. The Whoopi Goldberg film was originally intended as a vehicle for Bette Midler, and, as New York Times critic Janet Maslin pointed out in her original 1992 review, the pseudonymously credited screenplay is peppered with awkward "Scenes that might have played as mere snobbery with Ms. Midler [but] now have a hint of racism."
Maslin was being generous, and none of the things that gave her pause have been fixed in a stage adaptation that wears its cliches and cultural appropriations like a fur coat and stripper boots. The end result is a sometimes delightful, but mostly disposable Broadway hit that may attract and appeal to fans of the original films, but is unlikely to win over too many new converts.
Director Dave Landis keeps things moving with help from a solid band with a good feel for the musical's more soulful numbers. Packing marquee performers like Irene Crist, Courtney Oliver, Sally Stover, and Mary Buchignani into the ensemble helps, and for all my complaints, this Sister Act ranks among the tightest and better-acted musical productions in a theater season defined more by ambition than quality.
Sister Act's a show that's made to be stolen by Deloris, and Kolheim is more than up to the challenge. She's consistently grounded and human in a script that tries its best to turn all of its characters into sight gags. She's also funny, and it's no mystery to Memphis audiences what happens when she opens her throat to sing.
At the end of Sunday's matinee, Kolheim improvised a lyric into the finale. "You were fabulous," she warbled to the audience. Judging by the warm response, the feeling was mutual.
Marc Gill doesn't fare quite so well as Deloris' killer boyfriend, Curtis. But the POTS heavy-hitter has been given the tonally impossible task of remaining dangerous while singing cuddly, self-conscious songs. His goons fare better because they're never supposed to be anything but clowns, and Daniel Gonzalez's Barry White-inspired take on "Lady in the Long Black Dress" may be Sister Act's most memorable solo performance.
Sister Act's score is occasionally aspirational with fat-sounding numbers informed by Philly soul artists like Barbara Mason, Teddy Pendergrass, and the Delfonics. All this AM-radio-inspired goodness is sprinkled in amid self-consciously silly "musical theater" numbers that aren't quite deliberate enough to parody The Sound of Music. And then, in the middle of it all, there's the straight gangsta nun rap — an uncomfortable bit that elicits knee-jerk laughter. It's also weirdly anachronistic for a show that, based on the historic papal visit it mentions and the fact that none of the nuns know what a disco ball is, seems to be set in 1979. At least Stover handles the hippity-hop assignment with Memphis-bred aplomb.
Painterly lighting designs by John Horan splatter across Jimmy Humphries' fine, illustration-based scenery to make this Sister Act easy on the eyes. Rebecca Powell's costumes take cues from the script's John Travolta references and are built to highlight the dancers' most shakable parts. It's almost enough to send alert audience members straight to confession.