Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Opera House, Manchester, and touring
As the first of the Hollywood blockbuster-based Broadway and West End hit musicals to hit Manchester this season—Legally Blonde follows it into the Opera House and Dirty Dancing takes up residence in sister venue the Palace Theatre over Christmas—Sister Act brings us a Some Like It Hot premise with a bit of a Blues Brothers twist and a touch of The Sound of Music thrown in for good measure with a score of pure 70s soul recreated by Alan Menken.
After failing her audition to get a solo spot at Curtis Jackson's night club, sassy singer Deloris Van Cartier witnesses a murder by Curtis and goes to Eddie Souther, a policeman who had a crush on her in high school, for protection. He hides her in a convent where she tries to blend in as one of the nuns, with only limited success. The convent is threatened with closure and the congregations are dwindling, so Deloris turns her showbiz skills to pepping up the nuns' singing. But her efforts bring media attention that threatens to alert Curtis to her whereabouts, and the nuns have been promised an audience with the Pope.
It may not be very original as a concept, but it still has a lot of potential if it wasn't for such poor storytelling. The plot sets up the classic double threat of the Deloris's life being in danger and the possible closure of the convent, but instead of racking up the tension by building these two strands up alongside one another, the latter is resolved unconvincingly early on (hence the introduction of the audience with the Pope) and the former drops out of the show completely until near the end. Some of the humour is good, but a lot is creakingly-old sub-pantomime stuff with cardboard gangster characters that make Disney villains look convincing and scary.
In complete contrast there are some great songs with Alan Menken's wonderful soul score and Glenn Slater's witty, sophisticated lyrics that supply all the plot, character, wit and erudition that is totally absent from the book. "It's Good to Be a Nun" is a great comic ensemble number. Curtis's "When I Find My Baby" sounds like a gorgeous Motown love song—complete with hilarious Motown moves from his thug backing singers—until you listen to the lyrics and find out what he is going to do to her when he finds her. Eddie's "I Could Be That Guy" is his "Mr Cellophane" as he talks about how he would like to be the one that all the girls look at, and it incorporates two very impressive quick costume changes.
Cynthia Erivo is a tiny powerhouse with a great soul voice as Deloris, and opposite her Denise Black is superb as the disapproving Mother Superior with a very dry wit. Edward Baruwa makes a sweet Eddie who comes across as the most believable character on stage and certainly the most sympathetic. Gavin Cornwall as Curtis Jackson has a perfect voice for his big soul number and there is a great comic performance from newcomer Tyrone Huntley as Curtis's nephew TJ as well as from Laurie Scarth and Jacqueline Clarke as nuns Sister Mary Patrick and the old one who turns out to be a bit of a swinger, Sister Mary Lazarus.
By the end, it is difficult not to be affected by the humour in the lyrics and the energy in the music and the performances, but it does rather feel as though rookie scriptwriters have been on work experience with some of the greatest songwriters in musical theatre and the result has somehow found its way onto Broadway. If the writers had used the songs from the film as with some other film-to-stage adaptations the result would be a very mediocre jukebox musical, but Menken and Slater have given the book a quality and sophistication that it doesn't deserve and given the audience a show that ends up being a great deal of fun, despite its flaws.
"Sister Act" runs at the Opera House until to 15th October 2011
Reviewer: David Chadderton