Sister Act

Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Jamie Wilson, Kevin McCollum, Gavin Kalin, Robbie Wilson & Curve
Grand Opera House, York

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The cast Credit: Mark Senior
Landi Oshinowo (Deloris Van Cartier) and Sue Cleaver (Mother Superior) Credit: Mark Senior
Eloise Runnette (Sister Mary Roberts) Credit: Mark Senior

It’s often difficult to predict which films will succeed at the box office. Occasionally, a sure-fire hit with an audience-friendly premise and A-list stars will sink without a trace; at other times, it’s the unlikely movie—the one in which nobody has any faith—that ends up capturing the public imagination. Sister Act—the comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg as a bogus nun—is a prime example of the latter, overcoming casting issues (Bette Midler was originally attached to the project) and other problems to become one of the biggest hits of 1992.

In 2006—fourteen years after the original film—a musical version of Sister Act was staged, and nearly two decades later it has become a beloved fixture in the West End, attracting a range of stars to play its assortment of eccentric nuns. The book, written by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, cleaves close to the source film, which sees an unsuccessful nightclub singer, Deloris Van Cartier (Landi Oshinowo), witnessing her married mobster boyfriend bumping someone off and then being persuaded to hide out in a convent, disguised as a nun. Whilst there, she butts heads with the imperious Mother Superior (Sue Cleaver) and adds some much-needed lustre to the convent’s abysmal choir.

So, how does the musical stack up to the original film? Very well, for the most part. The 1992 film was not a great film by any stretch, but it offered some nice material for its talented ensemble—not just Whoopi Goldberg, but also Maggie Smith and Kathy Najimy.

Arguably, the best thing about the musical version is its range of colourful roles for female performers. Landi Oshinowo exudes energy and charisma as Deloris—later known as Sister Mary Clarence—and she sings her numbers with aplomb.

Anyone who has seen Coronation Street over the last quarter century will know that Sue Cleaver is a talented comedic actor, and she brings these skills to her performance as the austere Mother Superior. Although she may not radiate the froideur of Maggie Smith, she manages to grab some of the evening’s biggest laughs with her withering putdowns. While she may not possess Oshinowo’s singing skills, she still performs her songs well, her delivery reminding me of certain Sondheim numbers in which emotional truth is prioritised over vocal gymnastics.

Eloise Runnette impresses as Sister Mary Roberts, a young nun coaxed out of her natural timidity by Deloris’s bravado, and Isabel Canning gives a scene-stealing turn as the perpetually upbeat Sister Mary Patrick.

Given the female-dominated nature of the story, the male performers are generally given less to do. That being said, Alfie Parker is delightful as Deloris’s gun-shy cop beau Eddie, and his rendition of “I Could Be That Guy”—which includes two tear-away costume reveals—is superb. The villainous characters are less well drawn than their saintly counterparts, but spirited performances are given by Ian Gareth-Jones as the mobster Curtis and Elliott Gooch, Michalis Antoniou and Callum Martin as his low-life flunkeys.

One of the chief pleasures of the original film was its use of classic Motown songs such as “My Guy”, “I Will Follow Him” and “Heatwave”. The musical’s greatest departure from the original film is the way it relocates the action from the nineties to the seventies, positioning Deloris as a fan of disco à la Donna Summer rather than a Motown devotee. The songs—by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater—are enjoyable and well-crafted, but I must confess that none of them have stayed with me.

Bill Buckhurst’s direction is brisk and agile, although the show felt slightly over long—particularly in the second half. That being said, the energy of the ensemble, who dance and sing with conviction—combined with Morgan Large’s colourful, glittering costumes—made Sister Act a jolly and uplifting experience.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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