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Article updated: 11/15/2012 5:36 PM

Great cast the saving grace of derivative 'Sister Act'

By Scott C. Morgan

One of the many blessings of "Sister Act" is the way it elicits smiles. With so many singing and bogeying nuns blending disco with the divine, how else could you react to this 2011 Broadway musical?

Now playing at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University through Sunday, Dec. 2, "Sister Act" offers a goofy, glitzy night out, even if the show can't fully shake the feel of fluff.

"Sister Act" is based upon the hit 1992 film of the same name that starred Academy Award-winner Whoopi Goldberg, who is also one of the musical's lead producers. The musical focuses on an aspiring lounge singer named Deloris Van Cartier (Ta'Rea Campbell) who goes into hiding as a nun after she witnesses her gangster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs), commit a murder. While in the cash-strapped convent, Deloris whips a tone-deaf choir of nuns into showbiz shape and turns around the parish's dwindling attendance in the process.

The musical mirrors the film's plot, but the show's creative team pushed its Philadelphia setting back to the late 1970s. This switch allowed composer Alan Menken ("Beauty and the Beast," "Little Shop of Horrors") and lyricist Glen Slater ("Tangled," "Love Never Dies") to write an enjoyable, if at times derivative, disco homage score.

Book writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) also threw in some references to late disco queen Donna Summer for this fish-out-of-water tale that wins plenty of laughs from seeing a group of nuns shake and shimmy to Anthony Van Laast's "choralography." The pained reactions from the staid Mother Superior (Chicago actress Hollis Resnik, giving a marvelously grounded and well-sung standout performance) are also a particular production highlight.

Where "Sister Act" doesn't fully convince is in its padded second act. Several minor characters suddenly get their own focus-pulling songs, ranging from Curtis' henchmen singing a smarmy seduction number (played to great comic effect by Charles Barksdale, Todd A. Horman and Ernie Pruneda), to the timid postulate Mary Robert who uncharacteristically belts out a song of defiance (powerfully sung by Lael Van Keuren).

Deloris' seeming renunciation of her disco diva dreams isn't fully believable in her production number reprise of "Fabulous, Baby!," nor in the show's contemplative title song. The final door-slamming chase sequence staged by director Jerry Zaks isn't as elaborately clever as it could be, and the sight of the nuns all suddenly brandishing rulers and yard sticks was an eye-rolling cliché.

Despite some mechanical exposition line deliveries, Ta'Rea Campbell offers up a galvanizing performance as Deloris. She's surrounded by other great performances, like Diane J. Findlay's bluntly sarcastic take on elderly nun Mary Lazarus, E. Clayton Cornelious as the lovestruck cop Eddie Souther and Florrie Bagel as the enthusiastically boisterous Mary Patrick.

Designer Klara Zieglerova's touring "Sister Act" set does not have as many dimensional or rotating parts as it did on Broadway, but it still gets the job done alongside Lez Brotherston's sparkly costumes and Natasha Katz's flashy lighting design.

Though "Sister Act" won't enter the pantheon of musical theater masterpieces, it does work on its own crowd-pleasing turns. "Sister Act" also expands the repertoire of family-friendly singing and dancing nuns beyond those old standbys of "The Sound of Music" and the many sequels spawned from "Nunsense."

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