Sister Act

Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane)
Whoopi Goldberg and Stage Entertainment
Opera House, Manchester

Cynthia Erivo as Deloris with the cast of Sister Act Credit: Tristram Kenton
Denise Black as Mother Superior Credit: Tristram Kenton
Cynthia Erivo as Deloris with the cast of Sister Act Credit: Tristram Kenton

It seems highly appropriate to note that the cast of Sister Act are preaching to the converted at Manchester Opera House. To their credit, the instant warmth of their reception spurs them on to an energetic and committed performance of evangelical proportions.

Adapted from 1992's film of the same name, Sister Act tells the story of lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier who witnesses a brutal gangland execution and winds up hiding out in a Philadelphia convent. From that point on the plot turns on a whole series of questions: will Deloris stay safely hidden until she can give evidence? will the good cop get the “bad” girl? will the strict Mother Superior loosen up? can the convent be saved from financial ruin? will the shy novitiate find her true calling in or out of the church? All of these characters are embarking on a personal journey, and the audience is eager to go with them.

Although the story ostensibly belongs to Deloris, Sister Act is a genuine ensemble piece, with all the key players having his or her moment in the spotlight. The indisputable showstopper of Act One is “Raise Your Voice” (when Deloris makes a raunchy silk purse from the sow’s ear of the convent choir), but another vocal highlight is good cop “Sweaty” Eddie Souther’s “I Could Be That Guy”. Edward Baruwa’s singing is melodic and soulful and the choreography on this number has a neat twist or two.

The menace is played lightly (perhaps a nod to the broad range of the show’s appeal—infants and pensioners are dotted throughout the audience) with even the on-stage killing quickly sprinkled over with comedy. That said, Cavin Cornwall earns his boo-hiss ovation at the close, with a stylish interpretation of ruthless gangster, Curtis Jackson. Meanwhile his sidekicks, TJ (Tyrone Huntley), Joey (Daniel Stockton) and Pablo (Gavin Alex) carry off the comic set-piece of the night with “Lady in the Long Black Dress”—a hilarious nod to the Floaters’ 1977 hit, “Float On”.

The role of Deloris must be all but impossible to cast perfectly, as it seems to demand a fantasy cloning of Beyoncé and (the original Deloris) Whoopi Goldberg. Even so, Cynthia Erivo grows into the part as the show progresses and, if she never quite has the audience in the palm of her hand, she never looks in danger of losing them, either.

Denise Black is perfectly cast as Mother Superior, her acting skills put to good effect in the one role that truly demands it and her ability to carry a tune ably demonstrated.

Along with Edward Baruwa (as good cop, Eddie Souther) the vocal plaudits go to Julie Atherton, who cuts above a fine ensemble in the role of novice nun, Sister Mary Robert.

The musical score plays knowingly and joyously on the soul music of the show’s seventies setting blended to great effect with gospel passion; the lyrics are sharp and witty. Among the raunch, the soulful “lurve” and the comedy, there is also the occasional moment of genuine pathos, most notably in the reprise of the title song, “Sister Act”—lumps in throats and tears in eyes for this show of sisterly solidarity.

The church setting miraculously takes on seventies disco glitz, mirrorball statue and all, and the costumes morph from drab habit to OTT glitter and glam to top off a spirit-lifting climax. At the finale (the ‘Donna Summer moment’ for those in the know) the audience—old faithfuls and new converts alike—rise and testify in full voice.

Incidentally, scattered through the audience are quite a number of “nuns” in full habit—some rather stylish, one or two more suited to Nuns on the Run than Mother Superior’s Queen of Angels convent. I’m pretty sure that Jake Thackeray’s “Sister Josephine” was seated right behind me. Is Sister Act on its way to becoming the next Rocky Horror Show? (Take that as a warning or an incitement, as you will).

As the man in the TV commercial says of Deloris and her singing nuns:

If you see only one Roman Catholic mass this season, let this be it!

Sister Act Manchester Opera House to 6th October 2102, then touring.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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