BWW Review: SISTER ACT Comes Bearing Gifts of Joyful Noise
Manila, Philippines--"Sister Act" was a Hollywood blockbuster in the early 1990s, pegged as a family comedy that cashed in on the sheer star power of Whoopi Goldberg.
A quarter of a century later, Whoopi remains at the helm--this time as a producer of the Broadway incarnation. While her illustrious charm sells almost everything she's in, "Sister Act," the motion picture, doesn't begin to compare to the polished genius of this stage adaptation.
A film rarely translates into a viable theater production, anyway. Attempts have been made the other way around. But certain entrepreneurs had the impetus and the requisite clout--and a ready narrative with proven mass appeal-- to produce a full-blown musical comedy about murder and nuns.
Secure the collaboration of composer Alan Menken, lyricist George Slater, authors Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and Broadway director Jerry Zaks--then you get a template for a certain box office hit. The musical received five Tony Award nominations in 2011, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical.
Set in 1970s Philadelphia, "Sister Act" recounts the frenzied tale of an aspiring disco singer Deloris Van Cartier. She dreams of becoming the next Donna Summers one day, but her life takes an abrupt detour after witnessing a murder at the hands of her gangster lover. Her own life suddenly at risk, the police puts her into protective custody in the one place she is certain to remain incognito--a convent.
Disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris is at odds with the rigid new life she's forced to adopt. Brash, feisty, and prone to blurting out inappropriate remarks, she disrupts the sublime aura of the convent and challenges the dignified patience of the Mother Superior. As a last resort to keep her occupied, Deloris is relegated to the task of working with the choir of nuns, a duty that changes her life and breathes soul into a dying parish where she ultimately discovers herself and true sisterhood.
Deloris is the heart and soul of this narrative, and suffice it to say that the show lives and dies with the lead actor who plays that role. Tremendous pressure indeed, but leave it to Dené Hill to exceed expectations. She is larger than life: an exuberant actor and a powerhouse singer with a range to take on the soulful arrangement of old-school funk and rhythm and blues. It's a versatile feat, given her background as an award-winning international opera singer.
It's a large, accomplished cast capable of turning in stellar solos and ensemble work. But it's worth mentioning that a compelling foil for Deloris' frantic exterior is the languid yet sturdy presence of the Mother Superior. This production boasts the solid talent of Rebecca Mason-Wygal, whose controlled elegance as the head nun wields your undivided attention. Her soothing mezzo clutches the heart and rocks it ever gently while avoiding every tendency to drip saccharine. Mind you, behind her look that hides all manner of expression is a storyteller with a great sense of humor.
Notable performances are aplenty, among them by Sophie Kim as Mary Robert, Brandon Godfrey as gangster Curtis Jackson, and Will T. Travis as smitten cop Eddie Souther. The nuns are alternately warm and hilarious, and as a singing ensemble, they provide some of the hottest musical numbers in the show.
A live touring musical has no chance without the reliable underpinning of a pit orchestra. Kudos to the impeccable sound of Christopher Babbage (keyboard/conductor), John Conway (additional keyboards), Darren Lucas (guitar), Michael Kraig Beeck (bass), and Todd Talbot (drums). They are tight and dynamic and sound fullest in some of the musical's greatest hits: "Take Me to Heaven," "Raise Your Voice," and "Spread the Love Around."
"Sister Act," the musical, showcases gospel music at its most jubilant, albeit least reverent. It also succeeds in lampooning traditional religion while drawing you deeper into its relative gold mine where man and deity might find common ground.
This international touring company, presented by Ovation Productions at the Theatre at Solaire, comes bearing gifts of joyful noise. It's well worth the time to visit that theatre sanctuary and receive their blessing.
The show runs until this Sunday, July 9. For tickets, visit TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Richard Jinman, Takahiro Watanabe