After seeing Sister Act at the Orpheum Theatre, I thought back through all of my nine years of Catholic school education and found that only one question circled through my head: “Would Sister Deanna wear a sequin-laden habit?” Yes. You read that right. Sequins. It’s apt considering the glitzy, gimmicky, and not-so-breathable quality that Sister Act has as a script. After unsuccessful club singer Deloris Van Cartier witnesses her married lover commit a murder, she is put into a scaled-down witness protection program, which places her into a convent and renames her to be Sister Mary Clarence (“Patron saint of prisoners everywhere,” claims Mother Superior, exasperated at Deloris’s irreverent presence). All this, plus disco in the form of a convent-choir-turned-glee-club, spearheaded by – who else? – Sr. Mary Clarence.
The plotline is relatively simple, but the problem truly lies in the songs and lines. While genuinely attempting to be absolutely laugh-out-loud hilarious, only a few moments merited such a response. Many of the jokes seemed forced – almost like the only reason they were actually said onstage is because they were in the script. For example, “Lady in the Long Black Dress” involved the former lover’s henchmen singing about how they will romance the nuns. It was a song that would have done better in an uncomfortable B-list film that faded into oblivion.
But credit where credit is due, the actors handled the script with all of the overwhelming knowledge and ability that their credentials would suggest. Ta’rea Campbell (Deloris) had an especially memorable moment with her rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, piecing together bits from misquoted psalms and the Pledge of Allegiance. And this masterful interpretation of such a shallow text was not a one-off move. All of the actors, right down to the last member of the ensemble, had a charming moment.
The same cannot be said for the technical side, on the whole. Certain elements, like the set design (Klara Zieglerova), showed off the experience of the professionals. This was especially true of the costumes (Lez Brotherston), sequins and all. A seemingly instant onstage costume change during “I Could Be That Guy” left even the most disinterested audience member vaguely intrigued into the mechanics of the whole situation.
However, the lighting (Natasha Katz) was not quite up to par with the credentials – though considering that Katz has designed the lighting for many different productions of Sister Act, she must have some idea as to what she’s doing. But the main reason I noted the lights was due to the unnecessary gobos used in the opening scene and in a few numbers post. It didn’t immediately connect for me, and only served to disorient as I was trying to decipher the plot. However, I will commend her on her collaboration with the set designer in their use and accommodation of suspended fluorescent troffers in the scenes occurring in the dingy basement criminal hideout. It added to the overall sketchy aire of the scenes. All the same, I do wish that they had been able to develop a way to fly the troffers down without dropping them from slack strings that caused them to bounce around for far too long into the scenes.
(And this last comment is just me nitpicking the accuracy of the representation of the Catholic Church in this version of the musical. For example, in the mid-1960s, the Second Vatican Council addressed the topic of habit-wearing nuns and decided that it need not be a required practice. By 1978, when the storyline for Sister Act occurs, the habit was virtually obsolete and would not have been common practice for most orders, save for the most traditional and eldest sisters. Somehow, I just feel that if a musical deems it acceptable to play with jokes about Catholicism – or any religion, – it is doing an overall disservice to not look into the history and only play with shallow and cliché-ridden stereotypes.)
I would say that this show was, en masse, charming yet irredeemably flawed. Ultimately, Sister Act is akin to sinking ship: even if it has the most high-tech equipment and an incredibly knowledgeable crew, nothing is going to save it if it’s plagued by a massive hole in the bottom of the deck.