What happens when you throw together a sassy lounge singer, a collection of lovable nuns and a hearty helping of disco? You get a feverish night of fun at Hale Centre Theatre’s “Sister Act.”
The family friendly musical debuted over the weekend, proving that even without Whoopi Goldberg to lead the pack as she did in the 1992 film, this adaptation is funnier and even more entertaining than its cinematic predecessor. While the “Sister Act” film was an instant hit thanks to the comedian's fish-out-of-water antics and humorously reworked R&B tunes, the musical seems even more charming, humorous and heartwarming.
Goldberg might well agree — after all, she helped produce its 2011 Broadway run. Before that (in 2009), it enjoyed a healthy run on London’s West End and was nominated for several awards, including five Tony Awards, according to Music Theatre International's website.
What makes this movie-turned-musical a winner? For starters, the action has been shifted to the disco era — spoofing the big hair, outlandish styles, soaring sounds and infamous dance moves.
The era proves fertile ground for hilarious song-and-dance numbers and dazzling ballads. Oscar-winning Disney composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater have created a score that takes full advantage. The duo’s music did not disappoint, and HCT’s leading lady in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast (on which this review is based), Raven Flowers, had the musical prowess and comedic touch to honor it.
The story revolves around Flowers’ character, Deloris Van Cartier, whom the cops hide to protect her as their key witness in a murder case. Sent to a convent and disguised as a nun under the suspicious watch of Mother Superior (played M/W/F by Betsy West), an unlikely friendship ensues between Deloris and her fellow sisters. Things further bloom when Deloris appoints herself choir director, taking charge of the sad-sounding troupe and injecting her familiar showmanship to create an overnight musical sensation that saves the parish.
During a particularly memorable scene in which Deloris (known to her sisters as Sister Mary Clarence) teaches them to sing, the lovable nuns’ voices seem to evolve and beautify into a harmonious blend with each passing measure. The song “Raise Your Voice” knocks it out of the park with signature Broadway flair.
Flowers’ powerful, roof-raising voice and diva-esque sass make devotees out of not just her fellow nuns but the HCT audience as well. The singer/actress is a natural on the stage, notwithstanding a few missed comedic moments.
This was most apparent during the opening scene, when Flowers sings “Fabulous, Baby!” While funny, it felt as if Flowers was holding back somehow — maybe her heels were too high? And while her voice is a force to be reckoned with, some of the last scenes seemed to be a strain. With multiple high-energy, dance-filled, disco-laced gospel numbers, you had to hand it to her for her fortitude. Fortunately, even when her voice seemed exhausted, she never did. The result was a dazzled, smiling audience who couldn’t help but tap their feet and clap their hands.
For all of Flowers’ soul power, nothing brought down the house like the nuns. When their new sound brings in more parishioners, they grow more confident, and so do their moves. What is it about watching those sisters in habits getting their groove on? (Or “nuns shaking their buns,” as one nun puts it). And speaking of the habits, with each passing service, their habits become more and more bedecked and festooned until the final number, when they are a vast sea of sparkles.
Another bright spot was the lovesick character of Eddie Souther (“Sweaty Eddie” as Deloris calls him). Sweet on Deloris since high school, Eddie, played masterfully by Keith McKay Evans, boasts some of the most hilarious ballads. In more than one daydream scene, Eddie instantly ditches his uniform for silky three-piece disco-wear and grooves some over-the-top Lou Rawls and Barry White-style spoofs. The music’s clever lyrics and classic nods are purposely cringe-worthy (think jazz flutes and glittering chimes) yet totally enjoyable.
Hale Centre Theatre’s 60-performance run of the musical, which continues through Dec. 3, proves that this adaptation of “Sister Act” can adequately churn out the laughs and even elevate the story with its musical pizazz and disco flavor.
Content advisory: The show contains cigarette smoking, a bar scene with alcohol, some crude and religious humor, a violent gun conflict and slapstick violence.