I am nothing if not contrary, and whilst weighty fare such as Lantana features in my Top 5 films, Sister Act is also up there amongst my all-time favourites. I have seen it numerous, numerous times and absolutely adore it, so I had mixed feelings when I heard that it was being made into a musical and arriving at the Palladium. My fears were then heightened when I found out that the songs from the film would not be featured in the show, and so I was quite sceptical as I approached the theatre.
Sister Act The Musical first came into being in the States in 2006 and has been developed since then, with the book being written by multi-Oscar-winning songwriter, Alan Menken. The story is still fairly similar to the film, lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier is placed in a witness protection programme after witnessing her hoodlum boyfriend shooting someone, and so she finds herself in hiding in a convent, disguised as a nun. Her only connection to the sisters with whom she is sequestered is through music, and she inspires the choir to hgh levels of success, but in doing so threatens to ruin her cover, and the safety of the nuns, as she has a contract out on her head.
I am glad to report that my doubts were completely unfounded and I absolutely loved the show. The action has been transplanted to 1970s Philadelphia, and this is reflected in a much more disco-inspired soundtrack. The songs are mostly great, and very hummable. I can’t wait to see the show again and get the soundtrack as I think there could be some classics in there which need to get onto my iPod! It is just a huge feel-good musical, often funny, often silly, but above all just great fun.
As the lead, Deloris, Patina Miller has a role that suits her down to the ground. Filling the stage with her vibrant energy from the word go, she simply does not quit until the curtain call, infusing the whole production and auditorium with her infectious enthusiasm. Her singing voice is strong, though perhaps not particularly spectacular if one were being harsh, but is well suited to the funky disco numbers that she has.
With the supporting roles, at first glance it looks like the main priority in casting was the physical similarity to the film counterparts, especially with the Monsignor, Sister Mary Patrick and Sister Mary Robert, but thankfully their individual strengths are given ample opportunity to shine through. Claire Greenway invests the jocular Mary Patrick with just the right level of cheeriness and dispays some wicked comic timing, Katie Rowley Jones does well as the meek Mary Robert who eventually blooms under Deloris’ watch and Julia Sutton also deserves a mention here as she has many very funny lines as Sister Mary Lazarus.
And last but by no means least, Sheila Hancock who plays the Mother Superior role, memorably portrayed by Maggie Smith in the film, is an absolute riot. She’s not the best singer and may not be the most agile dancer, but she attacks the role with such gusto and is so obviously having a whale of a time onstage, I found it hard not to smile every time I saw her. As with her turn in Cabaret, she is continuing to prove her huge versatility and should surely be cemented as a national treasure.
By comparison, the few male parts are really quite underwritten. Ian Lavender as the Monsignor has barely anything to do at all, quite amazing considering his name is on all the posters, Chris Jarman struggles to inject the necessary murderous malice into the main baddie Shank, perhaps unsurprisingly given that this is a family show, and only Ako Mitchell as Eddie the policeman has a really good song, replete with some amazing outfit trickery.
The various sets are cleverly designed, with some great transitions with the revolve, and the cathedral is magnificently gaudy. The costumes are also good fun, as the nuns’ habits get increasingly sillier, culminating in a complete glitter and spangle-fest by the umpteenth change for the finale.
I can totally understand why this show has not been received well by the critics, but a lot of it can be dismissed as pure snobbery. Yes, it is silly and doesn’t always make complete sense, but then it is not a gangster film nor a searing indictment of witness protection schemes. And as for the alleged incongruity about the nuns being able to sing before they’ve met Deloris, that is simply people projecting the film’s plot onto the show and not paying attention. The choir in this show can sing already, they are just very muted and quiet, and what Deloris does, as in the name of one of the key songs, is to teach them to ‘raise their voice’.
Pleasingly, this was one of the most diverse audiences I have ever seen at a West End show, and maybe this is something that the highbrow theatre critics should bear in mind, the next time they bemoan the white-middle-class domination of audiences at other straight theatres. And I have no shame in admitting I was on my feet at the end of this show, indeed I was one of the first out of my seat!! Highly, highly recommended.