Tuesday 18 October 2022

Sister Act

 Curve, Leicester

17th October, 2022

I got bikers and addicts and punks in the pews

1977, Philadelphia. Most of the city’s churches have been converted into nightclubs, theatres or other places of debauchery(!). The church of Our Lady in Perpetual Sorrow is also on its last legs: pews are empty, collection plates are being stolen, and its superfluity of tone-deaf nuns could soon lose their home. Into this comes Deloris Van Cartier (an impeccable Sandra Marvin), a whirlwind of big hair, sequin dresses and unruliness forced to take refuge at the convent after witnessing a mob murder. Although the conflict at the heart of Sister Act, based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg (who is co-producing this production), is probably well known by now, it is a delicious concept that seems to have always been destined for the stage. This Curve co-production of Alan Menken’s and Glenn Slater’s 2009 musical has arrived in Leicester after a summer run at London’s Eventim Apollo.

Whereas the movie is set in 90s San Francisco, moving the musical to 1970s Philadelphia works really well. It’s a time where the city was facing waves of depopulation, high crime rates and drug problems alongside a thriving funk and disco music scene. It’s a perfect backdrop, then, for a world of seediness, crime and the transformative powers of music. Menken captures the influential Philly Soul sound in standout songs such as “Fabulous, Baby!" and “Raise Your Voice” along with plenty of songs more in keeping with the ‘traditional’ musical theatre style for which he’s perhaps well-known. It’s not his most memorable of scores, but there are a lot of songs which establish and advance character. Slater’s lyrics help achieve this wonderfully. I particularly liked “The Life I Never Led” in which Sister Mary Roberts (Lizzie Bea blowing the roof off with her vocals) realises her confidence and self-worth that Deloris has helped her find. Like all good culture clash comedies, the characters all gain something from each other. Deloris is more than just a backroom singer and the nuns are more than just their habits. There’s also a strong subplot involving one of Deloris’ old flames, the police officer Eddie Souther. Graham MacDuff has a great number with multiple quick changes in which he transforms from slightly incompetent steady Eddie to a disco diva! I’m also pleased that “Haven't Got a Prayer” has been kept in the show (written for the Broadway production in 2011), in which Lesley Joseph’s tight-lipped Mother Superior wrestles with her faith due to her growing frustration with Deloris.

Cheri and Bill Steinkellner’s book with additional material by Douglas Carter-Beane moves the story along nicely and has some funny one-liners: at one point Deloris is shocked at Mary Roberts’ claim she’s a postulant, exclaiming ‘I ain’t never never sunk that low!’ In other parts, it has a more difficult job to balance the frothy comedy with the darker parts of the story. The gangsters, for instance, are reduced to stereotypes. That being said, there’s a delicious number where Jeremy Secomb’s nightclub owner/mob boss Curtis Jackson vows to find Deloris. The menacing lyrics such as ‘And when I find that girl/ I'm gonna kill that girl!/ I'm gonna wham! Bam! Blam!/ And drill that girl!’ are nicely juxtaposed against the grinning mobster backing dancers. It’s a fun moment which, like the musical as a whole, embraces the escapism of musical theatre.

Sister Act plays at Leicester’ Curve until 29th October as part of a UK tour. For further information, please visit https://www.sisteractthemusical.co.uk/uk-tour/

Sandra Marvin as Deloris Van Cartier. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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