I had seen the movie “Sister Act” with Whoopi Goldberg back when it came out in the 1990s. So I wasn’t completely unprepared in terms of plot when I headed into the opening night performance of the stage musical, which is based on the movie.
But the musical itself was a bit of a mystery to me since in Connecticut, I’m a little bit off the beaten path from the news and reviews of what’s happening on the Great White Way of New York City.
So, I was thoroughly unprepared, but exceedingly pleased, how great the show was when I saw it opening night at The Bushnell in Hartford April 16.
At times, I was laughing so hard I was tearing up. And when there were some more tender moments in the storyline, I was tearing up because I was touched by what was happening on stage.
For those unfamiliar with the movie or the stage show, it follows the exploits of Deloris (played by Ta’Rea Campbell), a singer who is trying to make it big. She witnesses her boyfriend kill one of his minions, Fearing for her own life, she runs to the police. To protect their witness, police hide Deloris away in a Catholic convent till her boyfriend can be arrested and convicted. Along the way, there is a culture clash between the nuns and the feisty singer. But when the flashy singer is given the task of becoming choral director for the nuns, she transforms the moribund choir into a performance smash.
The stage show tweaks the original cinematic storyline a bit. It transports the tale from Las Vegas to Philadelphia. It also bounces back the era to the 1970s (which for a couple of plot points helps smooth things out).
The stage show benefits from a script with great characters. And the performers don’t let their characters down.
Campbell, in particular, is a great a find. She shows great comedic skills and she has a great set of pipes, which makes every song she sings sound as if it were ready made for radio. She also makes the character exceeding loveable. You have to root for her. Deloris may be brash at times, and a little bit rough around the ages, but Campbell remembers to let the character’s sweetness shine through.
Hollis Resnik, who plays Mother Superior, finds a great balance as Deloris’s nemesis, who is a bit bent out of shape having this interloper placed amongst her nuns. The character easily could have veered into cartoonish villainess . But Resnik’s performance makes it clear this a woman in charge. But she also makes it clear that her biggest concern isn’t so much Deloris but trying to maintain the integrity and sanctity of the church she loves. Resnik also offers up the most emotional moment of the night with “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” where she reaches out to God for some guidance about what to do about Deloris and the changes she had wrought in the convent.
Although Resnik and Campbell are the most notable stand-outs of the evening, the show is blessed with so many great character actors, all of whom exhibit no shame as they try to make the audience laugh. However, despite their lack of shame, the actors don’t resort to showboating. Everything they do on stage serves the story as it unfolds.
A perfect example of the character actors tickling the audience’s fancy was “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” which was performed by the three hoods, Joey (Todd A. Horman), Pablo (Ernie Pruneda), and TJ (Charles Barksdale). The song, which cheekily describes how to seduce a nun, offers a pitch perfect parody of the Philadelphia soul music of the 1970s, complete with choreography straight out of “Soul Train.” But even as the actors mocked the old Philly sound, each actor did so in a manner that was consistent with their characters.
One of the things I liked about “Sister Act” was how it treated the characters of faith. Sometimes, when comedy takes a swipe at religion, it will do so from a superior point of view that belittles the faithful. But there was a good deal of respect for religion in the show. The nuns were funny, but that was because they were funny characters, not because there beliefs were “funny.”
The show also benefitted from snappy dialogue, fast-paced directing that never slackened, and a score that showed great skill with paying tribute to the Philly Sound, as noted, disco, and more traditional Broadway-style music.
“Sister Act” had no earth-shattering message and there wasn’t any great emotional heft to it. But that’s fine. The world does need the opportunity to laugh, not think, and just be transported somewhere else than their own lives.
Overall, this was probably one of my favorite shows I’ve seen in recent memory.
I give “Sister Act” at The Bushnell in Hartford on April 16 four out of four stars. The show continues at the Bushnell in Hartford through Sunday, April 21. For tickets, go to Bushnell.org