Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Not all of these movie-to-stage adaptations work, but Sister Act does. I was expecting a carbon copy of the movie, but although the plot is basically the same, there's a lot that's original about it. The movie used a lot of familiar songs, mostly Motown, and one of its charms was seeing how a song like "I Will Follow Him" or "My Guy" could be turned into a song about Jesus. None of those songs are carried over into the Broadway show. It's not a jukebox musical, its all new material, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. I don't think Menken has ever written anything as good as when he was working with Howard Ashman (who died too young in 1991), but the songs here are catchy if not all that memorable. The music is pastiche-y, with examples of doo-wop, disco, hip-hop, and some down-tempo tunes. I was surprised that Slater's lyrics in this show are often as clever as Ashman's could be.
If you've seen the movie (and that's what they're counting on to get you into the theater), you know the basic plot; the book based on the film is by Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner, and Douglas Carter Beane. Deloris Van Cartier (not her real name) is an African-American lounge singer who accidentally sees the gangster she's having an affair with kill somebody. She gets away and goes to the police. They want her to testify against her boyfriend, but they have to hide her away somewhere until the trial date. Why not an all-white convent? Surely she won't stick out there! The point is that no gangster would ever think of looking for her among a bunch of nuns, and for a while, it works.
While she's stuck in the cloister, she whips the chronically out-of-tune choir into shape, brings in some funk and soul, and the singing nuns become so popular that the Pope comes to hear them. Unfortunately, once the nuns get famous, Deloris's cover is blown, and it's run for your life again. But you know going in that everything's gonna be all right.
The show is joyous and heartwarming and a lot of fun. And it's big, with a cast of over 30. Unlike in the movie, everybody gets to sing in this show. My favorite songs are the ones given to the supporting characters. Curtis the gangster (Mark Pino) has a fun number called "When I Find My Baby" about all the ways he's going to kill Deloris when he finds her. I've never heard the word "disembowel" in a lyric before. Eddie the cop has a good song called "I Could Be That Guy," and as delivered by Jon Gallegos, it's a showstopper. Gallegos could be singing the phone book and make it sound like opera. Curtis's three henchmen do a hilarious Barry White-like song about how each of them would seduce the "Lady in the Long Black Dress." It's perfectly cast, because the very large Jason Wiley seems like the least likely person to be singing it (but then again, Barry White was pretty big too) and because Xavier Visage sounds exactly like Smokey Robinson and because Joe Moncada is a riot singing the lyrics in Spanish. Then there's a patter song for the 17 sisters called "It's Good to be a Nun" that's remarkably clever; it's a shame that the lyrics go by so fast that you can't catch them all (listen for the line about hairy palms).
Shelly Andes does fine work as the Mother Superior whose life is completely upended by this crazy Deloris, and her singing is often quite touching. Amy Carter is wonderful as Sister Mary Robert, the young novitiate who wonders what she is missing in "The Life I Never Led." Ashley Lopez and Laura Nuzum are very entertaining as the nuns who are the first to get down. And really, all of the other cast members are completely on their game.
The star, of course, is Deloris, played here by April Lisette. Where has this woman been? She's a bundle of energy and she sings and dances like a real professional, which, according to her bio, is what she is. Henry Avery, the director, was lucky to get her for this role, which suits her perfectly. I've never seen her on an Albuquerque stage before, and I sure hope that this isn't the last time.
The sets, which change frequently, are impressive, which is what we've come to expect from Glenn Pepe. Costumes by Joe Moncada are really well done, as is the lighting by Lucas Zuniga. My one and only gripe about the Albuquerque Little Theatre is that I have never been to a show there that did not have problems with the sound. It wasn't bad this time, but the mics still would cut out for a second or two, for no apparent reason, often enough to be distracting. It seems like something that should be fixable, but it never seems to get fixed.
Apart from that, the whole production is top notch. Cheryl Sharps and Shelly Andes, the music directors, have gotten excellent vocals out of everyone, and Peter Bennett has crafted some lively dance numbers. Everything has been pulled together by Henry Avery with his usual professionalism. This is the first production of this musical in the state of New Mexico, and I'm hoping that a lot of New Mexicans see it. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this show, but I ended up having a great time, and I'm sure that everyone else who sees it will too.
Sister Act, through March 31, 2018, at the Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW (just south of Central), Albuquerque NM. Friday and Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. Additional performances on Thursday, March 22 at 7:30 and on Saturday, March 31 at 2:00. Tickets $15 to $25. Info at albuquerquelittletheatre.org or 505-242-4750.