Music: Alan Menkin
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Book: Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Director: Bill Buckhurst
Musical theatre is in a feel-good phase and the much-delayed revival of Sister Act: The Musical is geared towards having a good time. Its broad comic strip style, glittering design and bombastic songs by Alan Menkin and Glenn Slater are designed to please crowds, and in Bill Buckhurst’s new high-energy production opening at the Eventim Apollo, there are plenty of exciting moments in which the magic of theatre almost makes you forget the show’s fatal flaws.
Nightclub singer Deloris van Cartier witnesses her gangster boyfriend shooting one of his men and immediately goes into hiding so she can give evidence at his trial. Oly, her childhood friend, now a policeman, decides to secrete her in a convent where her brash manner and unholy behaviour set her at odds with the straightlaced Mother Superior. But when Deloris discovers the choir, all their lives and their fortunes are transformed.
Buckhurst’s production excels at the one thing Sister Act: The Musical has to get right: the ensemble numbers performed by the nuns under Deloris’ supervision as she introduces them to pitch and tone as well as a lot of different beats. With jaunty choreography by Alastair David, these segments including Raise Your Voice, Spread the Love Around and Sunday Morning Fever are roof-raising, capturing the individual personalities of the featured nuns, their growing confidence and their sheer love of singing. All of this builds to a fever pitch for the final number in multi-coloured sequined habits which are guaranteed to wake up anyone starting to flag as the show approaches its 10.30pm finish time.
But in expanding the world of the film for the stage, Menkin and Slater’s Sister Act has a lot of subplots added by book writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner that lack substance. The fact that solos are given to most characters rather pad out the night. The cast sell them beautifully and with gusto, attracting some big names to sing them, but Deloris’ non-starter romance with policeman Eddie, Sister Mary Robert’s wavering vocation and even villain Curtis insisting in verse that he will kill his mistress feel like unnecessary and lightweight digressions from the core plot. It makes for a slow Act One in particular and it is some time before Deloris hears even a note from her sisters.
Replacing Whoopi Goldberg who was originally set to star, Beverley Knight is nothing short of Fabulous, Baby, Deloris’ title song. Knight is charismatic, has great comic timing and invests her leading lady with all the sparkle she needs as her character develops a relationship with the convent. From her spectacular entrance in a sequined minidress to the last performance, Knight wraps her exquisite vocals around disco, funk and soul numbers, a masterclass in elevating the material as much as she embodies Deloris’ joy of singing.
Jennifer Saunders takes a broad approach to the Mother Superior with added physical humour while borrowing a spoken singing style from Rex Harrison. Lizzie Bea follows up her excellent Tracy Turnblad with a charming Sister Mary Robert while Leslie Joseph has a riot as Sister Mary Lazarus learning to get down. Although they have far less substance, Clive Rowe brings feeling to his policeman solos and the, arguably tangential, Pablo (Damian Buhagiar), Joey (Tom Hopcroft) and TJ (Bradley Judge) produce one of the night’s highlights with Lady in the Long Black Dress.
It is a long night at close to three hours and, though smoothly directed by Buckhurst, the show never quite balances its expositional content with the performance scenes that everyone is really waiting to see. Sister Act gets a lot of things right, it is bouncy, often uplifting and much sillier even than the original film. And while it may lack any real jeopardy, the story of people finding their true selves through song provides an appropriate musical theatre feel-good finale.
Runs until 13 August 2022