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BWW Reviews: Heaven and Philly Both Inspire SISTER ACT at Hershey Theatre

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The Broadway League, which represents Broadway and other theatres and which sponsors the Tony Awards annually, also sponsors Kids Night on Broadway, a project to help bring young audiences to theatre. The Hershey Theatre's Kids Night ran on Wednesday, February 27, along with the second night of SISTER ACT. Children under 18 were able to receive free tickets if they came with an adult, and Hershey Theatre also had a number of activities for young audience members prior to the show, including scavenger hunts, fill-in-the-lyrics-blanks for songs from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LITTLE MERMAID, among other shows, and with a photo booth for junior priests and nuns to get ready for SISTER ACT. Dozens of younger attendees and their families were able to enjoy events prior to the show.

Judging from the enthusiastic reception, they enjoyed the national tour of SISTER ACT following the children's events as well, and that reception was deserved. The original "Sister Act" is of course the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg extravaganza about the casino lounge singer who is on a mob hit list and is placed in protective custody in a convent in San Francisco. The movie was incredibly popular - it's number 83 on Bravo Television's "100 Funniest Movies" list - and its success generated a musical version that opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006, made its way to the West End, and, with some overhauls, finally came to Broadway in 2011. The book, by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, was revised by the capable Douglas Carter Beane ("To Wong Foo..." in film, THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED, on stage), and the music and lyrics are by two sure-fire winners, Alan Menken (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LITTLE MERMAID, and a host of others) and Glenn Slater (THE LITTLE MERMAID). Slater got one of the Tony nominations, his second, for SISTER ACT - it copped five nominations, but it opened on Broadway in the holy year of 2011, in which THE BOOK OF MORMON was the religious musical comedy of choice.

Given the musical powerhouses who composed and wrote for SISTER ACT, not surprisingly the music is fine - and it's a pleasure that the musical is set in Philadelphia in the 1970's, with Menken and Slater delivering a heroic endeavor of fusing The Sound of Philadelphia of the period, that heady Gamble and Huff R&B, soul, disco, and funk fusion, with the demands of the musical theatre stage. That effort's more than successful. It makes up amazingly for the two problems the show has - first, that everyone watching the musical is thinking of the movie, and second, that the jokes (and they are plentiful throughout) are mostly staler than old communion wafers.

But forget the book. Forget, if you will, everything but the music, because the musical has far more songs than the movie ever did, and most of them are delights; some are gems of taking TSOP OTT (over the top). And the women of the cast have the voices to do it (the women, by and large, far outshine the men, but the women's ensemble is after all more important as it's the nuns' choir). Philly native Ta'Rea Campbell (she was Nara on Broadway in THE LION KING), on tour, has Patina Miller's Broadway role of Deloris, the crime witness who brings TSOP to the convent choir, while the Mother Superior is Hollis Resnik, award-winning Chicago actor/singer (a ten-time John Jefferson award winner), who's not only fabulous as Mother Superior, but who seems to be channeling Jane Lynch at her most wildly and hilariously bitchy at her best moments. She even looks like Lynch in a few of them, and she's well worth the price of admission to see all by herself.

Postulant Mary Robert is played by Ashley Moniz, whose demure exterior as the young Sister hides a serious belter, while Diane J. Findlay as Sister Mary Lazarus, the uninspired choir director who cedes her baton to Deloris' "Sister Mary Clarence", is a fine comedienne with a dry delivery that makes her boogieing nun moments that much funnier. And Richard Pruitt, of Broadway's ON THE WATERFRONT, is a Monsignor O'Hara with a secret Lou Rawls on the inside. The nuns' "Raise Your Voice" as Deloris teaches them to sing is riotously funny, while the gospel-chorus first act closer of "Take Me to Heaven" is a worthwhile roof-raiser (as well as being the trigger that tells the bad guys where Deloris is hiding). "Sunday Morning Fever," which introduces and occupies a large and delightful chunk of the second half, features the boogie nuns, dancing altar boys, and Monsignor O'Hara getting down with his bad self as he preaches - and collects in the plates - to the beat.

It should be added that the church choir set - stained-glass windows with multi-color lights and a gigantic statue of Mary - is a character of its own at the end of the first act and throughout the second act, as it both gets down with the nuns and reflects the success of their fund-raising for the church. If only Deloris' boyfriend, his gang, and her police officer buddy had the same level of mojo as the rest of the show, this would be perfectly heavenly (even with those jokes that seem to have been chiseled into stone around the same time as the Ten Commandments - hey, Steve Allen was a good Catholic boy).

See this one, if you go, for the disco church set, for Resnik's Mother Superior, and for Ta'Rea Campbell's Philly-funk Deloris and her sisters as they sing and dance their way into musical history. Campbell's sound and moves seem as if TSOP is indeed part of her DNA, and the energy she and the rest of the women bring to the stage is phenomenal. Resnik is simply phenomenal in and of herself. The costuming is spot-on, and Menken has a surprisingly fine handle on both the Gamble and Huff and the Motown sounds that defined a musical era in the Northeast. Grab a cheesesteak and a Yuengling - Deloris will join you, it seems certain - and settle in for the ride.

At Hershey Theatre through March 2. For tickets, contact the Hershey Theatre at 717-534-3405 or visit online at www.hersheytheatre.com.


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