A larger than life, feel-good film about the healing and transformative power of singing, such as Sister Act, has always been crying out to be transformed into a similarly over-the-top stage musical, and here it is. Relocated in the 70s, with all the opportunities for no-holds barred tastelessness in the costume department, and packed with toe-tapping, Philadelphia Soul-inspired Alan Menken songs: this is one of those shows with little time for subtlety.
Sandra Marvin is larger than life, vocally, physically and, in terms of personality as Deloris Van Cartier, a would-be show girl on the run from her gangster boyfriend. She is holed-up, very much against her will, in a convent. Blessed with a force-of-nature voice, she dominates the stage effortlessly when she has to, but also has the grace to let others shine through when it is their moment. Her brashness brings her head-too-head with the Convent’s more conservative Mother Superior, superbly played with brittle wit and hidden warmth by the excellent Lesley Joseph.
Inevitably much of the humour in the show arises from the tension between the worldly world of the protagonist and the simpler lives of the nuns she is forced to encounter. In It’s Good to be a Nun, where the sisters explain to Deloris what they like about being nuns, builds to a delirious climax of comic absurdity. It’s hilarious, but also troublesome in terms of what the show is supposed to be about. If the nuns’ lives are that ridiculous, how are we supposed to accept that Deloris has anything to learn from them and be transformed by her experience? Where is her journey? This is not helped by the choreography, which has the nuns, when they get to perform in church, bumping, grinding, crotch grabbing and pelvic thrusting. It’s just a bit too tacky.
For a while it’s not clear where all of this is going. Then Sister Mary Robert stops everything in its tracks with the heartfelt ballad The Life I Never Led, beautifully delivered by Lizzie Bea, and it becomes clear that what the sisters have to offer is true friendship. Deeply poignant.
A tentative romantic subplot creeps in: Clive Rowe brings humanity to the role of Eddie Souther, the policeman responsible to keeping Deloris safe. Clearly, Eddie is quietly in love with her. It is touching and fleshes out what would otherwise be a bit of a lifeless role. However, it does rather detract from the show’s central theme of sisterhood.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong. Damian Buhagiar, Tom Hopcroft, and Bradley Judge can’t stop themselves from stealing the show now and again as bumbling gangster henchmen. The production is flawlessly slick with some nice touches of physical theatre. The score is at its happiest when creating a pastiche of 70s soul, and the songs written in more conventional music theatre style can seem a little out of place.
At the end of the day, this is a tsunami of a show and it’s impossible not to get swept up in its infectious energy.
Lesley Joseph – Mother Superior
Sandra Marvin – Deloris Van Cartier
Clive Rowe – Eddie Souther
Lizzie Bea – Sister Mary Robert
Jeremy Seacomb – Curtis Jackson
Graham MacDuff – Monsignor O’Hara
Catherine Millsom – Sister Mary Patrick
Anne Smith – Sister Mary Lazarus
Tricia Deighton – Sister Mary Theresa
Lori Haley Fox – Mary Martin of Tours
Damian Buhagiar – Pablo
Tom Hopcroft – Joey
Bradley Judge – TJ
Castell Parker – Clemont
Tanya Edwards – Tina
Gabrielle Davina Smith – Michelle
Music – Alan Menken
Lyrics – Glenn Slater
Book Bell & Cheri Steinkeller
Director – Bill Buckhurst
Choreographer – Alistair David
Set & Costumes – Morgan Large