Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Fleeing to a nearby police station, Deloris reports what she has witnessed to police lieutenant Eddie Souther, who just happens to have been a nerdy admirer of hers when they were in high school together. In order to protect Deloris from Curtis, Eddie arranges with the austere and reluctant Mother Superior of the Queen of Angels convent for Deloris to hide out there, disguised as a nun (Sister Mary Clarence). Deloris is unhappy and angry about the Mother Superior's insistence that she be bound by the restrictions placed upon the nuns by their order.
This is the set-up for Sister Act, the musical stage adaptation of the 1992 box office smash hit film comedy of the same name which starred Whoopi Goldberg, now on stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Originally, it was successfully produced by the Pasadena Playhouse and Alliance Theater (Atlanta) in 2006-2007. In 2009, it was produced in London, where it ran for more than 600 performances. A revised version, directed by Jerry Zaks, opened on Broadway in 2011 where it attained a ru of 589 performances. Patina Miller starred in both the London and Broadway productions.
The gag-filled book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane, written for the Broadway version is the basis for this production. Largely written in the style of Dan Goggin's Nunsense, the book is mildly amusing and serviceable, failing to take flight until the second act. Goggin is a tough act to follow in the business of loveable comedic nuns.
In any event, the convent has a dreadfully unmusical nun's choir led by the frumpy, superannuated and inept Sister Mary Roberts. In time, having gained affection and sympathy for the sisters, Deloris assumes leadership of their choir and turns them into the swingiest, most popular choir in Christendom, or should I say, Philadelphia, transforming the lives of both herself and the sisters in the process.
Despite the often intentionally low-brow, unsophisticated level, it would be a bit curmudgeonly not to take some pleasure from any number of the humorous lines which abound here. When a nun informs Deloris that she is a postulant, Deloris responds, "Well, I used to get low in cash myself sometimes, but I never turned to that." In conversation about the oldest nun, a sister observes, " Rumor has it, when they found the shroud of Turin, they called her in to verify the likeness." And I can't resist sharing my favorite as it perfectly blends the religion and show-business elements of this musical. After the Deloris-led nun's choir obtains wide popularity, the monsignor announces that "The reviews are in. 'If you see only one Catholic mass this season, let this be it'."
As a gangster's moll, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (Deloris) is a bit too smooth and high class to be convincing. However, as the convent stay softens Deloris' edges and Ortiz unleashes her mezzo-soprano, we know that Deloris is in strong, safe hands.
The convent nuns–led by Jennifer Allen as the Mother Superior who is troubled and resistant to the value and virtuousness of Deloris; Belinda Allyn as the shy and repressed Sister Mary Robert; Kara Mikula as the enthusiastic and bouncy Sister Mary Patrick; Diane J. Findley as the angrily displaced head of the choir–bring humor, pathos, and, most importantly, strong show-stopping voices to their roles.
Jarran Muse is an appropriately likeable Eddie Souther, and Akron Watson is an effectively menacing Curtis Jackson. When late in the evening they get the opportunity to show their musical theater props, both Muse and Akron prove to be particularly delightful song and dance men. Anthony Alfaro, Ryan Gregory Thurman, and Todd A Horman (Curtis' crew) similarly excel in their showcase number.
Key creative credits are: direction by Jerry Zaks; direction re-created by Steven Beckler; choreography by Anthony Van Laast; choreography re-created by Janey Rothermel. This would seem to indicate that this is a replication of the Broadway production. There is nothing particularly innovative or auteur-like in the staging. Neither is it called for.
In the early going, while mildly amusing, Sister Act feels flat and disappointing. It appears to me that the fault may be in the direction, which lacks verve and sold pacing, and a scenic production which until the rejuvenated sisters hit the stage (or, should I say altar) is sparse and colorless. However, once the sustained concert-like choreography begins and is joined in a sustained manner by more traditional musical theater choreography, Sister Act becomes high spirited, feel-good, scintillating entertainment.
What is sensational about Sister Act is the rich and rollicking music of Alan Menken. Strange as it may seem, the ubiquitous and monumentally successful Menken, whom I believe is our best active American theater composer, is insufficiently appreciated and recognized. I think the major reason for this is that a large percentage of his most popular music was written for Disney movies, causing many musical theater aficionados to snobbishly ignore him. The range and quality of his music makes him rank with our iconic musical theater composers.
The lyrics of Glenn Slater seamlessly complement Menken's music. The terrific orchestrations of Douglas Besterman, along with the vocal and incidental music arrangements of Michael Kosarin, dance music arrangements of Mark Hummel, and the terrific orchestra conducted by Christopher Babbage, deserve mention because of the joy to be derived in paying attention to their contributions.
Through the years, no composer has as successfully combined a gift for traditional and contemporary music styles. Exactly 40 years ago, Menkin (with lyricist Howard Ashman) premiered the sensational doo-wop, rock 'n' roll, early Motown, and American songbook musical Little Shop of Horrors off-off Broadway. It is clear that there is good reason why Sister Act has been set in 1979 Philadelphia. Add in Gospel and a bit of jazz, and you'll have an idea of the rich musical palette Menken has given Sister Act.
At the final curtain of the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the musical Sister Act, I found myself in what, for me, was the unusual position of spontaneously and joyously rising to my feet applauding. It is that good.
Sister Act runs through June 26, 2022, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. For tickets and information, please visit papermill.org.