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Sister Act – Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Music: Alan Menken

Lyrics: Glenn Slater

Book: Cheri &Bill Steinkellner

Director: Jerry Zaks

Reviewer: John Roberts

[Rating:5]

It is almost impossible to imagine that in 1990 Sister Act would have starred Bette Midler and the story of a nightclub singer who witnesses a murder and goes under cover for her own safety in a convent might never have happened. Luckily time and common sense prevailed, the part of Deloris Van Cartier recast with comic legend Whoopi Goldberg and the rest is celluloid history.

Now over twenty years later Whoopi Goldberg is producing a musical version of the hit film and like its big sister, it has also had a slightly turbulent past – with no more than 3 re-writes since its original outing in Los Angeles. The current UK touring production uses the newly revised Broadway script and creative team, and because of that the storyline is sharper, the characters more believable and the whole experience even more enjoyable than its Olivier award-winning London production.

The first thing that hits you with Sister Act on stage is the loss of the original Motown singles that filled the film with so much energy, but this needn’t be a worry. Menken and Slater have managed to capture the essence of the era with songs that lovingly pastiche the original style of the film, yet bring a something so vibrant, fresh and original to the table. Song highlights include the comic yet dark When I Find My Baby to the roof-raising, gospel-inspired Take Me To Heaven.

Director Jerry Zaks has simplified the staging last seen in London and creates a fuss free production, the key here in this touring production is character development and storytelling clarity in which he succeeds no end, helped of course by versatile and energetic choreography from Anthony Van Laast. With perfectly balanced sound design from Gareth Owen, atmospheric lighting from Natasha Katz and dazzling set designed by Klara Zieglerova, there is very little to fault on the creative elements of the production.

The same sentiment can be bestowed upon the hard-working cast who pull together to create a true onstage ensemble, from the hilarious trio of gangster fools portrayed by Daniel Stockton, Tyrone Huntley and Gavin Alex, to the touching Sweaty Eddie, played with warmth by Edward Baruwa, or the gravitas of Curtis, played by Gavin Cornwall, but the night truly belongs to those who have a serious enthusiasm habit – the nuns.

Laurie Scarth is no stranger to a fat suit after playing Tracey Turnblad in the UK tour of Hairspray, and here she dons another as bubbly and larger than life Sister Mary Patrick; Julie Atherton is bewitching as the shy underdog Sister Mary Robert, while Jacqueline Clark gives a comedy masterclass as ageing nun Sister Mary Lazarus, but the highest credit must be given to Cynthia Erivo who owns every inch of the stage with her sensationally sexy, sublime, singing nun-on-the-run Deloris. From the first beat of Fabulous Baby to the final curtain call, Erivo nails every note with a passion that is so often missing from touring productions, let alone a show that has been on the road since September last year.

If you are looking for an evening of pure theatrical escapism, that will make you laugh, clap and get you up on your feet in an instant to give the just deserved (not contrived) standing ovation from a sell-out 2,400 seat theatre, then Sister Act is the show for you. I have already booked to see the show again before it leaves town and urge you to do just the same.

Runs until Sat 2nd June

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