Review: "Sister Act: The Musical" at the Opera House Players

Maegan Clearwood

  • OnStage Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic

Nuns, especially of the singing and dancing variety, are funny.

There’s really no way around the fact that watching top-to-toe clad, Rosary-wielding women of the cloth bounce from one spotlit cue to another is…just funny. Nuns have a long and illustrious musical theater history, into which The Opera House Players, Inc. is not afraid to lean with unabashed joy – and for that silliness, at the very least, this critic feels divinely blessed.  

Sister Act: The Musical has little to offer beyond a funky, disco-themed score by Alan Menken (and astutely musically directed in this case by Kim Aliczi); the original film is far more inspired and far less plot-hole ridden, and the musical adaptation reeks of commercialized fluff. Luckily, this Players cast, to polarizing degrees, brings this otherwise lukewarm musical to appropriately sparkle-encrusted life.

Most notable of the team is Tracy Funke as Sister Mary Patrick, the eternally bubbly vocal powerhouse of the Order (in one of the better lines carried over from the original film: “My mother always said, 'that girl is pure sunshine. She'll grow up to either be a nun or a stewardess.’”). Funke not only manages to brighten the stage from her tiny habit peephole, but also proves to be the most capable and enthused dancer of the ensemble, from humble nightgown to sparkly dress and wig.

The Sisters carry the show overall, in fact, particularly of note in ballads by meek Sister Mary Robert (Saralynne Brown) and Mother Superior (Jenna Levitt). The cabaret-artist-turned-nun herself, played by Nekita Waller, has a capable, at times enchanting, voice and manages to land some of her bits. Her lover-turned-homicidal-maniac, played by Dennis J. Scott, has a charming vocal performance, and Jim Metzler as Monsignor O’Hara rounds out the notable male cast as the comic heart of the production.

The ensemble shoulders technical and sound hiccups with thematically appropriate positivity and verve, and the production team tackles a potentially difficult world-building challenge with varying degrees of success; set designer Francisco Aguas’ stained glass backdrop adds a colorful touch, and Moonyean Field’s costumes offer some fun, disco-inspired giant lapels and sparkly go-go boots.

I wish I could leave this review on this positive note about the eternal pluckiness of community theater, but I would be remiss not to comment on the bewilderingly out-of-touch nature of the musical’s book. Despite a relatively recent Broadway run, Sister Act: The Musical does not prove the inoffensive if commercialized romp I anticipated. The film version largely ignores the racial tension inherent in its plot (Bette Midler was originally slated for Whoopi Goldberg’s leading role, so the screenplay certainly didn’t have that slant in mind originally), and despite slipping heavily into the “Magical Negro” trope, Goldberg is given so much agency that the story feels largely harmless and fun.

Unfortunately, the musical seems to have taken its 1970s setting to heart, not only in time and place, but in its attitudes toward race as well. Part of this comes from Deloris Van Carier’s character being shoehorned into a narratively unnecessary romantic subplot; this, combined with the musical’s innumerable secondary character solo numbers, strips the protagonist of her centrality to the story. Her introduction of soul and grooviness into the all-white convent feels, in this case, far more trope-y than the aforementioned film’s offense.

Even more bewildering is the blatant acknowledgement of Dolores’ race by the Sisters, but no attempt on the part of the writers to interrogate this theme in a satisfying way. This acknowledgment ranges from the nuns commenting about Dolores bringing “soul” into the choir to this astoundingly dated and offensive line, when Dolores’ identity is revealed: “You’re not Catholic, not a nun, but you are a Negro?...We like that part of you.” This, combined with smatterings of casual homophobia (“Bring on my gay boys with glitter!” Dolores exclaims – and don’t get me started on the Drag Queen bit) and a Spanish-speaking goon whose only role is to be amusingly hard to understand, make the musical feel outdated at best and offensive at worst – and no, setting this version in the 1970s is no excuse.

The Opera House Players clearly dove into this production process with earnest joy and the best of intentions. It’s a shame that the musical takes such giant step backwards from the original film. For anyone considering this production as a lighthearted weekend activity, I encourage you to of course support you community theaters – but please, bring with you a discerning eye and critical lens. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake is always a delight, but unless we hold writers accountable for their questionable work, lines like those mentioned above are going nowhere.