NEW YORK — It's time to stop mocking Mormons. And high time to have fun with Roman Catholics.
"Sister Act" — the crowd-pleasing musical that rhymes "chicks" with "crucifix" — opened Wednesday at the Broadway Theatre, having imported its dancing nuns from a well-received stint in London.
Calibrated to be frothy, giggly and yet often poignant, the Jerry Zaks-directed musical is based on the 1992 movie of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg, who is now producing. This is a musical that hits all the right spots, achieving something close to Broadway grace.
Goldberg's old part, that of the wannabe-nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier, is played to perfection by newcomer Patina Miller, whose voice, dancing and charm are, ahem, heavenly. "Yeah, I'm fabulous, baby!" she sings in an early song, the perfect way to announce this wonderful new talent. "Feast your eyes — can't disguise/my star quality!"
It helps that the musical has great original tunes by songwriter Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater that skitters from Motown, to soul and funk, to disco and even a little jokey Barry White. Menken and Slater, who also teamed up for "The Little Mermaid," know perfectly how to switch up the mood and tempo. (See how their "Take Me to Heaven" transforms from a Donna Summer-like number at the beginning to a religious hymn by the end.)
For its trip from the West End, "Sister Act" has gained some script tweaking, some song changes and a rehauled cast, most especially with Victoria Clark bringing depth to her role as the grumpy Mother Superior. Zaks took over direction duties and playwright Douglas Carter Beane massaged the story by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. The action has shifted from the West Coast in the movie to the '70s of Philadelphia, which allows for the introduction of soul, in more ways than one.
The plot is faithful to the movie: A nightclub singer accidentally witnesses a murder by her crime boss lover and flees to a convent to hide. The stuffy nuns come alive as she teaches them razzle-dazzle and rhythm — "Shake it like you're Mary Magdalene" — and she in turn learns the value of sisterhood and self-sacrifice.
Does it seem like Broadway musicals are having a lot of jokes at the expense of religions this season, what with "The Book of Mormon" and now "Sister Act"? Not to worry: Both these shows ultimately champion belief, even if they tweak what might be considered the external silliness of faiths.
Despite the uplifting message, the Vatican will be unlikely to endorse "Sister Act," even if the pope himself does make an appearance — in reality, conductor Michael Kosarin in holy vestments.
The sets by Klara Zieglerova whiz about the stage — church, convent dining room, bar, stained glass panels, a huge statue of Mary and a police station — as if God himself was moving them. Funny choreography in a show like this is crucial and Anthony Van Laast has clearly relished putting doughy-looking women in wimples through their Vegas-style paces. There's also a farcical chase that uses all of the stage.
He has been helped by Lez Brotherston's costumes which upgrade the nuns' black-and-white habits with a liberal dose of sparkles and rhinestones. The increasing lush, razzle-dazzle outfits of the nuns and priests is a running joke as Deloris' influence in the convent grows. But a note of warning: If the white suit John Travolta wore in "Saturday Night Fever" still haunts you, this show may trigger flashbacks.
Two songs from the London production, including the gospel-raunchy "Do the Sacred Mass," were cut, which is probably a good thing for believers and nonbelievers alike. Two songs have been added, including "Haven't Got a Prayer" for Clark, who nails it.
Miller is the only one remaining from the London cast and new director Zaks proves one of his first smart moves was to keep this talented woman. She and Clark manage to add depth — exploring how people handle change, should religions keep the modern world at bay and is fame more important than friendship — to what could be just a silly comedy.
They are aided by solid turns by Chester Gregory (who plays Sweaty Eddie and has delicious fun with "I Could Be That Guy"), Kingsley Leggs (the crime boss who sings the chilling love song "When I Find My Baby"), and Marla Mindelle as a novice nun who belts out the melancholic "The Life I Never Led"). Fred Applegate as the monsignor is drolly funny.
In a word, the whole thing is rather divine.
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