Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
There's no denying that Sister Act, the touring musical currently playing the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, is a crowd-pleaser. While the show may not be perfect or incredibly thought-provoking, its great performances, a first-rate score, and lots of laughs make it a welcome addition to the musical theater canon.
Based on the 1992 film by the same name, Sister Act tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a 1970s wannabe lounge singer, who witnesses her gangster boyfriend Curtis murder someone. The police hide Deloris in a convent of nuns. Much strife and hilarity ensue as she is forced to adapt to life in disguise (even to the other nuns) and as the holy women are exposed to Deloris' worldly outlook and antics. The convent and church they serve are also revitalized as Deloris shapes their once dismal choir into a funky, glitzy performance group of great acclaim.
The show played London starting in 2009 with a book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner. By the time Sister Act opened on Broadway, Douglas Carter Beane had also been brought in to provide additional material. The result is a story that's clearly told, has lots of hilarious one-liners (mostly the work of Beane), is joyous, and contains sufficient charm and heart. It's also somewhat predictable and lags at times in act two, but these are minor quibbles overall.
The score is by veteran songwriters Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics). Sister Act is Menken's best theater score in years, skillfully capturing the sounds of the late '70s, including disco, funk, soul and gospel. The lyrics by Slater include a good use of internal rhymes, some unexpected playfulness ("When I Find My Baby"), and aptly sharp wit. Song highlights include the driving "Fabulous, Baby," the stirring "Raise Your Voice," where the nuns discover their singing abilities, and the contemplative and touching title number.
In addition to Douglas Carter Beane's contribution, another reason that the Broadway version of the show, which is what is presented on tour, is considered an improvement over the London adaptation is the work of new director Jerry Zaks. Mr. Zaks brings focus, clarity, appropriate tone and pace, enhanced comedy, and theatrical pizazz. The disco-inspired choreography by Anthony Van Laast is inspired, fun, and active. However, there is a misinterpretation of a biblical reference in the dances. When Mary Magdalene is mentioned, the nuns make a move mimicking Mary, the mother of Jesus. They are not the same person! Brent-Alan Huffman leads a wonderful sounding twelve piece band.
The cast for this tour is excellent. Ta'rea Campbell introduces Deloris as an especially tough, heavy-on-the-attitude woman with selfish desires. This take makes it harder to warm to the character initially, but makes the transition to a caring, thoughtful person more impactful. Ms. Campbell provides superb vocals and has stage presence to spare. Hollis Resnik is just right as the uptight Mother Superior, sings with great skill and confidence, and likewise shows a strong character arc as the head nun that learns to appreciate some of Deloris's worldly talents. Kingsley Leggs reprises the role of the vengeful Curtis that he created in New York, and manages to be both funny and menacing at the same time. E. Clayton Cornelious (as Sweaty Eddie, the nerdy cop who pines for Deloris), Florrie Bagel (the over-exuberant Sister Mary Patrick), and Diane J. Findlay (the gruff and elderly Sister Mary Lazarus) all mine plenty of laughs in comedic roles. As Mary Robert, Lael Van Keuren supplies impressive vocals and also convincingly shows growth as the character moves from timid to outspoken. The entire cast does a commendable job in all respectssinging, dancing and acting.
The scenic design by Klara Zieglerova is varied and professional, and lighting designer Natasha Katz utilizes darker palates and shadows effectively. The costumes by Lez Brotherston capture the decade's cheesy glam, while also incorporating a coup de theatre.
Sister Act is likely a new piece to the vast majority of theatergoers, even if they're familiar with the movie source. The joyous songs, humorous story, and multidimensional characters make for a worthwhile two-and-a-half-hours of entertainment, and a talented cast only helps matters.
Sister Act continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through May 12, 2013. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, please visit www.sisteractthemusical.com.-- Scott Cain