Re-Review: Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, Palladium

“I had a revelation when I skipped my medication”

One of the cardinal rules of theatre booking is that you should never book to see a show just to see a particular performer as that road can only lead to disappointment. And so it came to be when I booked a return visit to Sister Act The Musical when it was announced that Whoopi Goldberg would be covering the role of Mother Superior for most of August for the sole reason of seeing her rather than any desire to see the show again. With the sad news of her mother taking very ill, Whoopi was forced to cut her run short and return to the US and so I ended up giving my tickets to a friend.

But the world works in mysterious ways and I clearly had some good karma stored up so when I booked the shows on my Groupon deal (including this one as I had decided to give it a whirl again since it had announced it was closing in advance of a move to Broadway and also to make way for The Wizard of Oz) and was randomly allocated a date, it just so happened to coincide with Goldberg’s return to the show for just 5 performances.

It was interesting to reassess the show after about a year since I saw it for the first time. As you can read here, I absolutely loved it last time round but time has not been kind to it in my memory. I was underwhelmed by the soundtrack, I do think it is rather undistinguished musically, focusing too much on non-descript 70s pastiches rather than strong tuneful musical theatre numbers and that struck me again on second viewing: they are not boring songs, just not memorable enough nor lyrically inventive enough, aside from How I Got The Calling. I do wonder how the show will cope in New York as the divergence from the film does reveal the weaknesses in the plotting and so much of the humour is really quite laboured.

What I was hugely impressed by though, and what will be the key to any transfer, was the sheer vitality of the ensemble and the pleasure they are getting from performing: one could feel the energy crackling off the stage from the off. I don’t know if they’re energised by the finish line being in sight or the return of Whoopi, but the whole production felt as fresh as if it had just launched; not an inconsiderable achievement for a show that’s been going a while. Jacqueline Clarke’s worldly Mary Lazarus, Claire Greenaway’s irrepressible Mary Patrick and Katie Rowley Jones’ sweet-voiced novice Mary Robert make for a great supporting team and I look forward to seeing where they all go next, but the whole corps of nuns should be commended for their fully committed performances.

As for Whoopi, well she was just Whoopi and it was great to be able to see her live on stage. She was clearly touched by her raucous reception and it was moving to hear her talk about her mother, who subsequently passed away, and the support she has received from everyone, this ensemble in particular. It feels churlish to point out that she doesn’t feel particularly right for this role such is the force of her personality, but she does fit in rather well all things considering, adding more warmth to the gravitas of this Mother Superior, even throwing in a few cheeky adlibs for good measure. She clearly has an excellent relationship with Patina Miller (Goldberg is one of the show’s producers too) and their interactions together were brilliant and though Miller is clearly the star of the show, again providing an excellent performance with her customary vocal fireworks, there was a refreshing lack of ego on both sides as they shared the limelight.

So heed the lesson well: don’t book to see a play in order to just see the one person, make sure that it is a show you want to see regardless. It was a great pleasure to be able to see Whoopi Goldberg finally and I am grateful that she decided to come back. As for the show, I am sorry to see it go given how good its cast are, but I am not sure it is strong enough in its current format to become a staple in a crowded market of film-to-musical productions.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 30th October

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