Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Los Angeles Critic
LONG BEACH, CA - One of the things that made the 1992 hit film comedy Sister Act such a laugh-riot was seeing Whoopi Goldberg play a sassy Vegas lounge singer who disguises herself as a nun that goes on to reinvigorate the convent's badly-run (and bad-sounding) choir with the aid of some classic R&B/pop hits. Even funnier? These classing songs were humorously repurposed with different lyrics that were more, um, appropriate for a church setting.
Though that comedy device of rewritten song lyrics is (unfortunately) not utilized for the film's musical stage adaptation, still, much of the spirit and basic plot architecture of the original movie remains in 'SISTER ACT' - THE MUSICAL, which features all-original songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, as well as a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with additional material contributed later by playwright Douglas Carter Beane). The show started with an out-of-town tryout at Pasadena Playhouse a decade ago before being heavily re-tooled for its eventual West End and Broadway productions.
Goofy and full of cutesy charm, 'SISTER ACT' was, for me, a pleasant surprise when I first experienced the show during its national tour stops in Los Angeles and Orange County a few years ago. I was initially worried upon learning about its rocky early beginnings and finding out that the plot has been shifted backwards time-wise to the 1970's, giving the musical a new disco-flavored environment. That latter aspect, actually, proves to be one of the show's smartest decisions, adding an added layer of comical touchstones to skewer (the hairstyles, the outfits, the decade's musical attributes), and distancing itself enough to be its own individual entity for those expecting an exact replica of the hit movie and only to realize they're not really getting one.
Which brings us to the present. Currently, Musical Theatre West's admirable regional production of this Tony-nominated Broadway musical comedy is finishing out its final weekend of performances at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach through April 24. Helmed by director Michael Matthews and features lively musical direction by David Lamoureux and energetic choreography from Daniel Smith, MTW's new production is a fun, frothy presentation with lots of laugh-out-loud moments for an entertaining evening (or matinee) in the theater.
So what makes the show enjoyable? Well... for lack of a better phrase... it's all about the nuns.
Yes, just as in its cinematic origins, 'SISTER ACT' entertains the most whenever the focus shines on the wonderfully colorful (though mono-hued draped) nuns of the convent at the heart of the story. While the show tends to slow down a bit and lose some comic momentum whenever other non-habit-wearing periphery characters enter from the wings, the nuns always manage to perk things back up again. Need a reason to see this production? These gals are definitely a good reason.
We first meet these ladies when they themselves all get their first meeting with spunky new convent newcomer "Sister Mary Clarence"---who, of course, is really Deloris Van Cartier (instantly likable spitfire diva Constance Jewell Lopez) in disguise. She's hiding out in the convent reluctantly, forced to seek refuge here after witnessing a brutal murder committed by her married gangster boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Gerry McIntyre).
Naturally, the excited nuns are curiously infatuated with their new Sister.... well, except for the very skeptical Mother Superior (the gloriously acerbic Mary Gordon Murray, blessed with the snarky delivery of a seasoned stage vet), who sees Deloris as nothing but trouble herself.
Naturally, as comedy dictates, it doesn't take long before the other nuns take a real liking to Sister Mary Clarence, whose less-than-holy behavior suggests that she seems to have come from a much more progressive order than they're used to at their own traditional parish. Particularly taken with the new nun are bubbly, over-ecstatic Sister Mary Patrick (joy-buzzer Cindy Sciacca), loopy Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours (hilarious J. Elaine Marcos), oldest nun Sister Mary Theresa (standout Sarah Benoit), and shy, young postulant Sister Mary Robert (belt-tastic Ashley Ruth Jones), who would blossom within their midst. Even cantankerous Sister Mary Lazarus (the very funny Cathy Newman) eventually likes her too, even after Sister Mary Clarence usurps her position as the director of the church's very very bad choir.
So, yes, like in the film, Sister Mary Clarence---trying to find an activity at the convent that might make use of her talents---stumbles into the rehearsal of a very disorganized choir, where the voices are screechy and the harmonies are non-existent. With a quick fine-tuning (literally), some singing lessons, and an injection of showmanship (the kind she's used to with her own stage persona), she took a mess of a chorus and reinvented them as a must-see attraction of the church---much to the continued trepidation of Mother Superior, but to the hopeful delight of Monsignor O' Hara (playful Tom Shelton), who sees this exciting new development as the church's answer to dwindling attendance and a dilapidated, crumbling structure in danger of being shut down.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the musical, Deloris' former high school classmate, policeman Eddie Souther (Anthony Manough) continues his investigation of Curtis' activities, while keeping tabs on Deloris, whom he personally arranged to be hidden in the convent. We quickly find out, though, that Eddie has an extra investment in keeping Deloris safe. It seems Eddie---whom Deloris knew back in high school as "Sweaty Eddie"---still harbors a major crush on her (awww).
For Curtis' part, he deploys three of his most trusted (well, present) henchmen to go looking for Deloris: Spanish-speaking Pablo (Elijah Reyes), sensitive thug Joey (Spencer Rowe), and dim-witted nephew TJ (John Wells III). The funny, unexpected twist? The three tough guys form one incredible doo-wop-loving singing group, as showcased by their standout number "Lady in the Long Black Dress" and as back-up for Curtis' funny-but-murderous "When I Find My Baby."
But, it begs to be repeated: in every moment the sisters are on stage, 'SISTER ACT' is instantly infused with infectious joy. The show's best moments involve them, including the very rousing first act closing two-fer "Raise Your Voice" and "Take Me To Heaven (Reprise)" and, of course, the show's finale "Spread the Love Around."
Winningly sophomoric, harmlessly quirky, and gosh-darn adorkable in its best moments, MTW's regional production definitely brings in the (joyful) noise and the funk to Long Beach. If you have yet to see this musical, this is a good one to be blessed with while it's around.
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Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West. Review originally published in OnStage.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of SISTER ACT - THE MUSICAL continue through Sunday, April 24, 2016 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. SISTER ACT - THE MUSICAL is performed at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.