They’re ba-aack! And this week they’re in Leeds. Sister Act: The Musical has hit the road in Britain, billed as being ‘direct from the London Palladium‘. ‘Direct’, in this case, involves a 7,000-mile round trip across the Atlantic and back, since the version of the show that’s now touring Britain is essentially the heavily-revised incarnation of the show that opened on Broadway last year, rather than the ham-fisted, thuddingly obvious, (very) intermittently entertaining show that graced the West End in 2009 (tellingly, the programme lists the show’s first performance as the Broadway opening, not the London one). It’s been heavily revised, so it has to be better this time around, right? Well… sorta kinda. The worst bits suck less (that’s a technical term), the good bits still work, the whole thing is slicker and faster, and the Mother Superior no longer has a cringe-worthy line in which she refers to the bulges in the gangsters’ trouser pockets. All of these things, particularly the last, are cause for celebration… but don’t infer from any of the above that the revised show is good. It’s better than it was, but it’s not there yet.
And, really, it’s had enough time by now for the various people involved to work out the kinks in the book and the score. Based, of course, on the 1992 movie (I’m not going to outline the plot because everyone who might be remotely interested in a review of the stage musical has seen the film already), the stage musical version was first staged in Pasadena in 2006, and that production then moved to Atlanta in 2007. After undergoing some revisions, it opened in London in 2009 to decidedly mixed reviews, and then it underwent a lot more revision (including what amounts to an entire new book) before it arrived on Broadway in 2011. In all incarnations, the show somewhat rethinks its source material: it’s now set in Philadelphia, rather than Reno, in 1977 rather than the present day, and Alan Menken‘s music is best when it pastiches the soul/gospel/disco styles of that era. The musical also takes the brave decision to throw out all of the nuns’ performance numbers from the film and replace them with new music written specifically for the show, and those new numbers, although they’re gaudy and splashy and slightly too on-the-nose (not to mention way overchoreographed and over-designed), work well and are great fun, and that’s an achievement given how successful the movie’s musical numbers were. That’s good news, but it’s also where the good news ends, more or less.
The show’s biggest problem is the book, although ‘book’, in this incarnation, is overstating things – it’s more of a plot delivery device punctuated by weak one-liners. The source film, God knows, isn’t perfect, but it does at least manage to present a set of warm, believable, funny characters, and it’s to the film’s very great credit that it never once, even for a second, presents the nuns as buffoons, even though some of them are certainly eccentric. Because, in the musical, everybody seems to get a song, the book has been filleted down so that most scenes, now, seem to consist of two or three lines of exposition followed by a song cue. Given the clunking horror of a book – credited to Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner, whose list of theatrical credits is not extensive – that was in place when the show opened in London, this is an improvement; the ‘additional book material’ by Douglas Carter Beane (a nice way of saying ‘whole new book by’) is a lot less than completely successful, but at least it contains no lines that are so bad they make you stuff your fist in your mouth and squirm in your seat.
Unfortunately, because there’s so little of it, it also contains no actual characters, only stick figures with a single defining characteristic each. Deloris might as well walk onstage at the top of the show and announce, “Hi, everybody! I’m black and sassy!” – that’s all the actress is given to play until the last ten minutes of the second act. The roles of the gangsters and Eddie the cop have been beefed up at the expense of Sister Mary Patrick (the Kathy Najimy role) and Sister Mary Robert, significant supporting roles in the film that are almost relegated to bit-parts here, even though Mary Robert gets her own song in Act Two. Key plot points don’t happen, they’re announced, which means that the final scene between Deloris and the Mother Superior, which was quietly, sweetly touching in the film, registers precisely no emotional impact here, although the hard-working actors do what they can with the material. The show plays like a first draft, rather than the latest in a series of rewrites that stretches across at least five years.
The show does at least come to life a little when people start to sing, and the book scenes are so brief that a song is almost never more than a couple of minutes away. Deloris’s top-of-Act-One ‘Fabulous, Baby!’ and the nuns’ performance numbers – ‘Take Me to Heaven’, ‘Sunday Morning Fever’, and ‘Spread the Love Around’ – are the best things in the show; during those songs – and only during those songs – we get a glimpse of the vibrant, exciting musical comedy that this could have been but isn’t. The songs for the gangsters and Eddie the cop are fun but strangely irrelevant – they’re entertaining enough, but they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and they stop the show cold in precisely the wrong way. The rest of the score is not exactly top-tier Menken; the title song is pleasant but generic and utterly forgettable, and the Mother Superior’s two songs are almost magnificently dull. Worst of all is Sister Mary Robert’s ‘The Life I Never Led’, a climb-every-molehill howler that, astonishingly, gets a reprise; it ends on a big-ass money note, and before that it consists almost entirely of hot air. The just-about-adequate lyrics are by Glenn Slater, whose worst excesses – contained in a truly witless number for the nuns called ‘How I Got the Calling’ – have, thank God, been removed from this version of the show. The replacement number – ‘It’s Good to be a Nun’ – might not be exactly good, but at least we no longer get to hear Sister Mary Patrick relate the story of how she saw the face of Jesus in a coconut cream pie (I wish I was making that up). All of the musical numbers – good or bad, fast or slow, strident or introspective – are delivered at ear-splitting, headache-inducing, brain-numbing volume, presumably because it’s easier to grab the audience’s attention by turning up the sound system than by writing material that’s actually engaging.
What we do have here, at least, is a mostly very strong cast. Cynthia Erivo is a real find as Deloris – great voice, moves well, charisma to burn, and she’s a RADA-trained actress who manages to supply at least a little of the subtlety that is almost entirely missing from the book and the score. If she can’t quite sell the title song, she does as much with it as anybody could (and certainly is at least as good as Patina Miller, who originated the role in London and on Broadway), and when she rips into ‘Fabulous, Baby!’, she’s absolutely thrilling. Denise Black throws everything she’s got at the role of the Mother Superior, and she’s miraculously funny given the limitations of the script; she’s defeated by her two bad songs, but anyone would be. The cops and gangsters are fine, and Michael Starke is great fun as the Monsignor; given the score, it’s possibly to his advantage that he isn’t lumbered with a song, and he gets (and lands) a fair number of the best lines. Laurie Scarth’s Sister Mary Patrick is badly short-changed by the book and score; she does what she can, but in this incarnation of the show it’s not a role in which anyone is going to make much of an impression. Julie Atherton’s Sister Mary Robert, however, is something else entirely – honest, charming, sweetly funny, and she’s got the closest thing anyone in the show has to an actual character arc. She even – twice – more or less manages to sell the dire ‘The Life I Never Led’. She’s great, and it’s a great shame that her material isn’t nearly as good as she is. The choir of nuns are wonderful when they’re singing, and less wonderful when they’re not, largely because the dialogue they’re given is so perfunctory.
All of which makes the show sound completely awful. It isn’t. Jerry Zaks’ direction is slick and fast-moving, and the show’s pace is such that you never have to dwell too long on material that doesn’t work (it’s certainly an improvement over the work of Peter Schneider, who directed the London production – his greatest achievement was making sure the actors didn’t bump into either each other or the set). Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is energetic, obvious, and best when it parodies period disco moves; watching a choir of nuns shake their booties is fun the first time but subject to the law of diminishing returns unless you take the idea and develop it, and adding gaudy costumes with lots of sequins does not count as developing a choreographic idea, although the writing for the choir numbers is strong enough that those sequences would probably land if the nuns just stood there doing the hand jive. The show is often almost completely soulless, and yet the few really good sequences are legitimately exciting and great fun; they, and the cast, make it worth sitting through the mass of material that doesn’t work as well as it should. Klara Zieglerova’s set and Lez Brotherston’s costumes provide an occasionally witty excursion through 70s kitsch; Natasha Katz’s lighting is unrestrained by base considerations like good taste and subtlety. This show is loud, both to listen to and to look at, and Gareth Owen, the sound designer, should be locked away and made to do some kind of penance until he promises never to do it again. His work here isn’t a sound design, it’s an aural mugging stretched over two hours of stage time.
The great shame of it is that the show should have been so much better than it is. A stage musical based on Sister Act is not an inherently terrible idea, and everyone involved has done better work elsewhere. The cast work hard, and this iteration of the show has, in Ms. Erivo and Ms. Black, two really terrific leading ladies. In the few moments where the show really comes to life, it’s wonderful; unfortunately, those moments are few and far between. What’s truly dispiriting is that the show, even after having been developed through so many previous incarnations, still doesn’t completely work, given that the necessary fixes aren’t all that difficult to spot. Sister Act, unfortunately, is mostly a disappointment, even now – the only consolation is that it’s a disappointment with three or four really good things in it. At these prices, I’m afraid, that’s not enough.
Oh yes – and finally, let’s all give a big shout-out to the lady on the far end of row C in the stalls, house-left, who took flash photographs all the way through the second act. Madam, you’re a credit to your species. Whatever that might be.