It was quite the "religious" theatre day for me last Saturday with a double header of The Book of Mormon and Sister Act. Not too surprisingly, there are a few similarities between the two: both tease about their perspective religions, but always with an undertone of respect, both contain disturbing violence (who'd have thought I'd see two shows in one day with point blank shootings?), and both deliver audience-pleasing performances. Which you prefer, of course, is a matter of taste, but I can guarantee that you will leave feeling better about life with both shows.
I am a bit surprised to report that of the two, Sister Act is the more perplexing musical. Based on a very popular film (one of my favorite entertainments ever), I arrived at the Broadway Theatre expecting a musical version of the film, a relatively simple task given that the film seems a natural for adding songs. I wasn't expecting to find revelatory scenes about the characters, some themes that needed to be brought out, or even a major plot twist. I was hoping for a few more scenes from the film to be musicalized and that we see Sister Act on stage doing wonderful things that can't be done on film. I got my wish, sort of. But as I said, I find this show to be very perplexing.
It is like the central story is a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel, of course, representing the good to great aspects of the stage musical, while the devil is all of the compromise and failure of elements of the stage musical. In such a "battle" one side ultimately wins, but something here diminishes the whole simply because the "battle" took place.
There are three devilish problems, pardon the pun, with this production, and a few minor ones on the "bad side." On the smaller side, there is the overall scenic design by Klara Zieglerova who has created the single most unattractive set on a Broadway stage in many, many a season. OK, so this Philadelphia church has fallen on hard times and is in need of repair, but what exactly are they going to repair and refurbish? The giant, seamless, not a crack showing, but dismally grey arched walls that slide back and forth across the shadows? Maybe they will spring for 10 new crucifixes to replace the plain white paint sticks nailed together to look like 10 crucifixes currently on display? I'm exaggerating, but not by much. I know nuns take a vow of poverty and all that, but they are also Catholic, and the Church is known for its ornate religious symbols and cathedrals. The sheer magnitude of what we can see implies that this church is a huge inner-city cathedral. But the design would make a Tibetan monk's digs look like a luxury suite at the Hilton in comparison. Then there is Lez Brotherston's costume design. Granted, the majority of the cast is playing nuns, but does every non-nun have to be so monochromatic as well? Even the nightclub get up that Deloris wears to get a gig as a lounge singer is blah. I mean we expect lots of gold and purple velvet - the show takes place in the 70's - but who knew it could be so cliche? And the usually brilliant Natasha Katz seems to have thrown in her lighting towel, because she matches the set and costume design in darkness and blahness, scene for scene. Of course, how does one appropriately light UGLY?
The first of the two biggest problems with the show are the mostly repetitive production numbers and the mind numbing presentational style of most of the scenes. I suppose I can give choreographer Anthony Van Laast the benefit of the doubt. Just how much can you do with dancing nuns and still give them integrity? But even still, as they rise in popularity and become better and better performers under Deloris' teachings, shouldn't the last number be markedly different from the very first? And wasn't voguing a 90's thing? Van Laast did wondrous things with Jesus Christ Superstar, finding interesting and still appropriate variations on a theme, and that is one serious show. One would think that heaven was the limit with a fun show like this one. But the even more reprehensible and, frankly, shocking thing here is the appalling direction of multiple Tony-winner Jerry Zaks. Literally every single time a character has an emotional moment of epiphany, he or she is standing dead center stage almost to the orchestra pit delivering it. More times than not, the songs are delivered this way, too. The upside is that the audience by now has been trained that loud, arms spread, facing full front singing equals quality (American Idol, damn you!). And if that isn't enough, there are many times when the comedic lines and numbers are delivered directly to the audience, practically begging us to love it all. Doesn't Zaks have enough faith in his actors and material? Apparently not. The only fourth wall that should ever be broken in this show is the ceiling between characters and the Heavens.
Mmmm...I need to get to the angel side, because I can feel some major snark building up in my finger tips on this keyboard....
But all is certainly not lost with this stage musical - I did give it a "B" despite bad design, bad direction and bad leading lady acting and singing, after all. On the plus side, set designer Klara Zieglerova has made excellent use of both a huge turntable (left by Les Miserables?) that allows both scenery and preset actors to glide in and out of those monolithic arches cleverly and uninjured. And there is the very effective use of a center set section that rises from the floor and spins around revealing a variety of 70's kitch-filled locales that are as detailed and period-perfect as they are fun. OH! And there is the heavenly transformation of a giant Virgin Mary statue that gets more, um, bling, as the church climbs out of poverty. And costume designer Lez Brotherston has created the most fabulous costume change of this and many a recent season - CLEVER! And let's not forget Ms. Katz, who really ups her game for the climactic chase scene, where she proves that absence of light and use of shadow can be the key to exciting lighting design. And she sure know how to strobe the hell out of a celebration scene!
The rest of the cast is also uniformly good. Fred Applegate as the monotone Monsignor threatens to steal the show. He elicits giggles every time he enters in anticipation of what he is going to say. Kingsley Leggs does as much as he can as the bad guy ring leader without becoming too cliche, but it is his henchmen that are the real treat here: John Treacy Egan, Caesar Samayoa and Demond Green all make a mountain out of three molehill-sized roles, helped immensely by their act one number "When I Find My Baby" the ultimate in double entendre, and their funny humanity in act two. Again, when these three take the stage you can feel the audience lean forward in anticipation of what they will do next. Chester Gregory, always fun on the Broadway stage, really delivers as the Philly cop who is smitten with Deloris and is determined to rescue her. His is the one role largely rewritten from the film, and it really works, down to his 70's blues aria "I Could Be That Guy."
Ultimately, the rush of joy and almost profound emotional pull of the company is Heaven sent. The "angel" side takes it by a mile. It would have been nicer had the "devil" been in the details, not in the very basics. But you can't quibble too much with a show that leaves you smiling and happy days after you've seen it. That makes it one nice "act."
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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