Friday, October 5, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Sister Act

(Photo Credit Joan Marcus)

Like the Stations of the Cross—But Without the Humour
Sister Act on stage is anything but Heavenly
by Stuart Munro

Philadelphia, PA. Christmas Eve, 1977. Deloris Van Cartier (Ta’rea Campbell) is auditioning for a chance to perform in her boyfriend Curtis’s club. At the end of her number, Curtis (Kingsley Leggs) says she’s not ready and she doesn’t understand why. I can tell you. Despite having a stellar voice and killer moves, when Ms. Campbell starts to sing, her face goes completely blank and the last thing anyone wants to do is watch her. Ten seconds after the curtain came up on her and her back-up singers, I was more interested in both of the back-up singers. This is understandably problematic, having a star who is boring to watch. But this is what we’re left with on Sister Act’s national tour, currently at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

Based on the 1992 film of the same name, Sister Act is the story of a wannabe club singer who, after seeing her gang leader boyfriend shoot a man in the head, is sent into witness protection at the local convent, the last place anyone would think to look for her. In many ways the film seems like an obvious choice for a musical adaptation; music was a large part of its plot, and its slightly over the top nature would seem well placed on the Broadway stage. Sadly, none of the memorable music from the film has been transferred to the musical, and the joy of the film has been completely lost.

There are other problems. 

Alan Menken’s score is an uninspired pastiche of 70’s clichés and borrows from too many musicals he didn’t write

A weak lead doesn’t have to condemn a production if the material is strong enough, but the very fabric of the show simply isn’t good enough to carry us through the night. Alan Menken’s score is an uninspired pastiche of 70’s clichés and borrows from too many musicals he didn’t write (I heard hints of Hairspray and Dreamgirls among others), and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are often too obvious and nonsensical (“Everybody transubstantiate . . .” what does that even mean?). The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner is clunky and uneven, often finding awkward excuses for songs. The only real exception to this is the Act I showstopper, “Raise your voice,” which makes perfect sense and is the right blend of song, book, and plot. But characters go through rapid changes for no clear reason late in the show. And remember that guy who got shot in the head off the top? We see that. On stage. Within the first fifteen minutes. Musical Comedy!

The design isn’t much better, with sets ranging from a hyper-realistic police office, to artistically interpreted church cloisters, to something that looked like it could’ve come from your local high school for the nuns’ dormitories. Actually, I take that back. I’ve seen better sets in the Catholic School Board’s musicals. Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is simple and mostly inoffensive, and Natasha Katz’s lighting design is probably the only design element that works throughout. Lez Brotherston’s costumes start off as straightforward uniforms and habits, but quickly deteriorate to lamé and sequins for the nuns’ “performances” each Sunday during Mass. Jerry Zaks’s direction is a tad chaotic, and several of the Nuns are forced to imitate their counterparts from the film. By the end, the nuns and their Barry White inspired priest look like they should be at a Southern Baptist Revival, not a Roman Catholic Mass.

There’s no charm, no subtlety to any of it. It’s almost as if, halfway through the process, the creators gave up and said “Fuck it. We’ll just put sequins on everything (including a twenty-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary). That’ll cover up how shitty this is.” To be fair, the chorus of nuns, as well as the three gangsters (Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda, and Charles Barksdale) all steal the show whenever they’re on stage, but this hardly makes up for the show’s failings.

Sister Act on stage is, in many ways, a missed opportunity. Where the film was charming and original, the musical is gaudy and obvious. If you’re looking to relive the experience of that wonderful movie, I recommend you say at home and watch it instead.

Sister Act continues to November 4

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