Sister Act's story of a lounge singer entering a witness protection program after seeing her mobster boyfriend murder an associate could easily be set in any era. The 1992 film on which this musical was based was set in "the present" and derived much of its humor from the idea of a Catholic nun choir singing classic 1960s R&B girl-group songs. For the stage adaptation, bookwriters Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner (with an assist from Douglas Carter Beane) have moved the action back to the 1970s, allowing the original songs by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) to pastiche '70s disco and R&B. While that may have been motivated by a desire to appeal to the prime demographic who were Top 40-listening teens in the '70s and are now of theatregoing age, those genres probably lend themselves better to Broadway-style flashy staging, so nothing so wrong in that idea. What's disappointing, though, is the way the librettists so frequently walk away from the inherent humor of the premiseas singer Deloris masquerades as a nun while hiding from the gangster and re-invents the convent's struggling choirinto parodies of the likes of Donna Summer and Barry White. In so doing, they sacrifice opportunities to develop laughs from the characters and the farce of Joseph Howard's original screenplaynot giving us a solid book musical where we're invested in the characters. Instead, they settle for something like a 1920s musical comedy. Jerry Zaks' broad direction doesn't help, making absolutely sure we don't miss any of the comic bits.
With expectations appropriately lowered, Sister Act is still a good time, thanks to the marvelous cast in this national touring company and the upbeat and tuneful Menken and Slater score. The songs include some spot-on '70s pastiches as well as more traditional musical theater numbers in the voice we've heard Menken employ so successfully for his Disney musicals. The production numbers are staged by Anthony Van Laast in what show choir fans would call "choralography"simple steps and arm waving that's easy to execute. It's totally appropriate for the nuns' numbers, but we might have looked for something more ambitious for the nightclub scenes.
The tour's Deloris, Ta'Rea Campbell, is a knockout stage presence and easily anchors the show with her humor and energy. She effectively moves from the wisecracking self-centered Deloris at the show's start, into the wiser, more generous woman who earns the right to sing the anthemic title song. As Mother Superior, Hollis Resnik not only sings marvelously, but her character helps to ground the proceedings and gives it the show's most honest emotional moments. Sister Mary Robert, the meek postulant who gets the big Menken "I want" song "The Life I Never Led" (a bigger moment than the script earns for it), sends it sailing through the cavernous Auditorium Theatre.
Great comic support is also provided by Florrie Bagel and Diane J. Findlay as sidekicks Sister Mary Patrick (the Kathy Najimy role) and Sister Mary Lazarus (the Mary Wickes role). Among the men, E. Clayton Cornelius sings with Marvin Gaye-ish soul and makes a likable love interest as Eddie, Kingsley Leggs (of the original Broadway casts of this show as well as The Color Purple) is a powerful and threatening gangster, and Richard Pruitt skillfully brings out both of the realistic and comic sides of the Monsignor.
The highlight of the production design is the church sanctuary, with its stained glass windows and emerging disco lights in Klara Zieglerova's set design. Lez Brotherston does some amazing things with sequins as they are applied to the nuns' habits.
It all adds up to a fluffy and fun enough evening, though it seems like the writers took the easy way out in going for laughs when they could have been getting us more invested in the characters and situations. Douglas Carter Beane's jokes (and I'm pretty sure I can tell which are his) are funny, but it might have been better to employ his skill in creating characters rather than just punching up the laugh lines. Sister Act, while a good-time overall, could have been a better (and I'll posit more successful) musicala genuine feel-good showif that had been done.
Sister Act will play the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress Parkway, through December 2, 2012. For tickets, visit any Broadway in Chicago Box Office, call 800-775-2000 or visit www.broadwayinchicago.com. See broadwaytour.net/sister-act-tour for more information on the tour.