BWW Review: SISTER ACT Sings Out at The Belmont
Nuns on stage. It's been done. THE SOUND OF MUSIC. NUNSENSE. Nuns and a disco singer who's hiding from a murderer. It was a non-musical comedy film and Whoopi Goldberg nailed the part of Deloris Van Cartier iconically. So we're done there, right? Nope. Just as NUNSENSE spawned an entire theatre franchise, proving that nuns are funny - and even more musical than The Singing Nun (all right, the author dates herself) - onstage, so its creators recognized that the film SISTER ACT made sense as a musical. Come on. A singer hiding with a bunch of off-key choral nuns? A musical makes more sense than not being a musical. Thus, with the assurances that nuns, comedy, and music could succeed, SISTER ACT was born. One thing's for sure: THE SOUND OF MUSIC it ain't. Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't get their groove thing on.
Douglas Carter Beane worked with a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and the music and lyrics of Alan Menken and Glen Slater, and the show moves from the film's San Francisco to the disco heaven of 1970's Philly, home of Gamble and Huff and TSOP. As un-Mencken as they come - you won't mistake the music for anything Disney - the main disco numbers manage to convince you that you've heard them before, somewhere on the radio or on a dance floor.
At the Belmont Theatre, SISTER ACT: THE MUSICAL adds an element to Mencken's music- comprehensible lyrics. As often as this reviewer has seen the show, she has suffered from "catchy tune, kind of cute, wish I could make out everything they're singing," whether she's listened to community or professional productions. Jacquie Sutton, as musical director under director Rene Staub, has given the first ensemble the reviewer has heard that can enunciate their words to the Lord at all times. Of course, this leads to the fact that every one of Glen Slater's lyrics isn't exactly Godly - "I'm gonna drown that girl, disembowel that girl" isn't exactly an encomium, and, unlike THE SOUND OF MUSIC, this isn't the first musical for your youngest niece or nephew to hear. Unfortunately, unlike most Belmont productions, this musical doesn't have a live pit, but recorded orchestra, and the production suffers for that - a shame for certain numbers like "The Life I Never Led."
Along with hearing, there's sight, and there's plenty to see here. Staub and Tricia Taglieri have costumed the show perfectly, with everything from the conventional convent habit to Seventies disco glitz, including sparkly and showy costumes for that Monsignor of Music, the Father of Fabulous, Monsignor O'Hara (a delightfully funny Robert Eisenhour) and for the nuns in their Sunday morning fervor - excuse me, "Sunday Morning Fever."
April Harrison plays the fascinating-by-her-own-account would-be diva, Deloris Van Cartier. She has a noble voice, if not precisely one sufficiently Donna Summer-like; it's beautiful, but not always blasting when it needs to pack a punch. Harrison's likeable, though, and plenty sassy, enough so to require that hit squad when it's needed. Perhaps she's a bit more spunky than sassy, though; Deloris can use just a touch more grit and untamed sex when she starts out on her journey, to make her own unintentional spiritual journey that much more compelling. Vicki Bohn, on the other hand, is a plenty exasperated Mother Superior, feeling just that little bit more superior to everyone else, including the Monsignor and, just possibly, the Pope (a nifty little uncredited cameo conspicuously played by Joel Persing) - after all, she's the one who's going to change the concert he's attending to Bach when he wanted to discover A Fifth of Beethoven. Bohn has a surprising show-stopper in "I Haven't Got A Prayer," the Mother Superior's lament against modern music, a song that normally passes by the audience, but her vocal cords and her portrayal of Mother Superior's exasperation are that compelling.
Adelaide Achterberg is a real find as Sister Mary Robert. About to attend college for musical theatre, she has surprising dramatic chops as well as lungs, and it's nice to see her in a not-exactly-junior performance here. Her vocal depth on "The Life I Never Led" makes it, as it rightly is, the real power ballad of the show.
This is a show about women, bonding, and sisterhood beyond being Sisters, so it's not a surprise that the large female cast dominates the men in the production. There are really only five men, club owner and producer Curtis (Christopher Quigley), officer Eddie (Benjamin Eisenhour), in love with Deloris since school, and Curtis' trio of bungling henchmen, TJ, Joey, and Pablo (Kennard Watson, Mark Hargreaves, and LeQuient Lewis II). The gun-toting three stooges are at their level best in the show's disco love ballad, "Lady in the Long Black Dress," in which the brainless wonders try to figure out how to infiltrate a convent and come up with the plan to use their overwhelmingly lacking powers of seduction. It's always one of the single funniest moments of the show, and this production is no exception.
If anything, the women dominate this show a bit too much; for some reason, the men's scenes feel a bit low-key except for the moments with Quigley's Curtis. When your piece on the side is in hiding because she accidentally saw you kill an informant, you're going to have plenty of energy. Quigley's "When I Find My Baby" is a thing of comic beauty, a romantic engagement of just how well he knows her, and exactly how to kill her. Hey, you were warned that this wasn't THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Drowning and disemboweling are only two of the fifty or so ways to kill his lover.
Through the 25th at the Belmont Theatre in York, this show may not absolve you of your sins - the story line probably incorporates a few truly original ones for the baddies - but it'll relieve you of your stress. If you're looking for comic relief for a warm summer weekend, this is it. Visit thebelmont.org for tickets and information.