SISTER ACT (National Tour)Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner
Additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane
Dallas Summer Musicals
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Choreography by Anthony Van Laast
Musical Direction by Brent-Alan Huffman
Production Stage Management by Daniel S. Rosokoff
Stage Manager: Monica Dickhens
Associate Director: Steven Beckler
Associate Choreographer: Janet Rothermel
Scenic Design by Klara Zieglerova
Costume Design by Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design by Natasha Katz
Sound Design by Ken Travis
Hair/wig design by David Brian Brown
Orchestrations by Doug Besterman
Ta'Rea Campbell as Deloris Van Cartier
Hollis Resnik as Mother Superior
Kingsley Leggs as Curtis Jackson
E. Clayton Cornelious as Eddie Souther
Lael Van Keuren as Mary Robert
Florrie Bagel as Mary Patrick
Karen Elliott as Mary Lazarus
Brian Cali as Joey Finnochio
Ernie Pruneda as Pablo
Charles Barksdale as TJ
Richard Pruitt as Monsignor O'Hara
Ensemble – Melvin Abston, Gisela Adisa, Brian Calì, Holly Davis, Jacqui Graziano, Trisha Jeffrey, Mary Jo McConnell, Michelle Rombola, Dawn Rother, Jason Simon,
Angie Marie Smith, Tricia Tanguy, Kelly E. Waters, and Dashaun Young.
Photo Credit Joan Marcus
Reviewed Performance: 6/4/2013
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Well, talk about musical theater blasphemy! For your punishment say ten Hail Marys and report to the confessional booth to see Father O'Reilly every day for the next month for thinking or saying such thoughts.
There are two musicals that have nuns in them that, if a theater company puts them into their season, are guaranteed financial success at the box office. As for critical reaction, well, that's a different set of rosary beads. Those two nun-filled musicals are Dan Goggin's Nunsense and Rogers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.
Goggin hit the mother lode with his musical about a group of nuns doing a talent show as a fundraiser. That musical became a humongous financial success for Goggin. Nunsense has been produced by thousands of Equity and non-Equity theater companies all over the world. Since he hit the jackpot with this storyline, he went on to create six friggin' sequels involving the nuns. Needless to say, Goggin milked this theme for all its worth.
Rogers and Hammerstein, of course, brought to us the tale of Maria, six kids oozing cuteness, Captain Von Trapp, Nazis, and of course a parade of singing nuns in The Sound of Music. This is a family staple that is dearly beloved by the Luby's Sunday matinee blue hairs and those who adore the classic catalogue of R&H.
In 2006, a new musical about nuns was created at the Pasadena Playhouse called Sister Act The Musical. It was based on the 1992 comedy hit film starring Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris, a Las Vegas nightclub singer who witnesses her married, mobster boyfriend order a hit right before her eyes. She runs to the police and agrees to testify against him. But before she can do that the cops need to hide their key witness to keep her safe. So they stick her in a convent and change her identity. From there the comedy ensues. Deloris soon becomes the choir master and teaches the nuns to sing. Only instead of a secular, hymn-filled repertoire, she uses songs from the Motown catalogue and some bubblegum hits for the nuns to sing praise to the heavenly father. This of course brings much anger from Mother Superior. But in the end it all gets nicely tied into a happy ending.
When the musical premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse, it shattered all box office records for that theater company, making it the highest grossing show there.
After reconstructing both the book and score, the musical arrived in 2007 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta Georgia. Fun fact here: The Alliance Theatre is the same venue where Elton John brought to audiences the premiere of his rock/pop mega hit, Aida.
Instead of going on to Broadway, Sister Act packed up their scapulars and traveled to London where it opened at the West End in 2009. After being revised and retooled yet again, it finally arrived on the Great White Way at the Broadway Theatre in April 2011.
It had a new director, Jerry Zaks, and the artistic team brought in Douglas Carter Beane to refine and freshen up the book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. The score contains the music by Oscar/Tony winner Alan Menken and lyrics by Grammy winner/Golden Globe nominee Glenn Slater. Menken has had his share of hits and misses on Broadway. The hits include the current Newsies The Musical, Little Shop of Horrors, and Beauty and the Beast. Alas, his productions of Leap of Faith and The Little Mermaid did not achieve either artistic or financial glory on Broadway.
Sister Act opened to generally very positive reviews, surprising many within the Broadway community. The musical ran for 561 performances before closing in August 2012.
It received five Tony Award nominations including Best Score and Best Book. While it did receive a Best Musical nod, it was up against Catch Me if You Can, The Scottsboro Boys and the juggernaut hit The Book of Mormon, which won. For their current summer season, Dallas Summer Musicals has really given musical theater lovers a banquet of delectable treats with their choices for the Music Hall. Their 2013 summer season has been comprised primarily of fresh, new musicals that premiered on Broadway in 2011. Just last month was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Before that was Catch Me If You Can.
As they say in musical theater lore, musicals collapse or soar when it comes to the book. You just can't have some sleep-inducing dialogue created just to get to the next song anymore.
It needs to connect organically to the score. It has to have an indefinable ability of subtly that the next song is coming up. It should sync perfectly with a musical number. The book must give the characters strong development and subtext.
For Sister Act, the book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Cater Beane, for the majority of the production, successfully achieves that extremely difficult goal.
They have cleverly sprinkled an array of religious jokes that do not offend whatsoever. The book is chockfull of robust laughs. The comedic one-line zingers are wickedly funny.
They follow the central theme of Paul Rudnick's original film screenplay with some tweaking and changing. Such as changing the era to the 1970s, which plays greatly in regards to the score, and Philadelphia instead of Las Vegas. The central character Deloris is no longer stuck in a mundane act in Vegas. In the book for the musical she is a singer on the cusp of making her big break as a disco diva star.
The whole montage of the nuns physically transforming the church, by painting it, working & meeting the local community, tearing down the iron gates, etc., from the film is gone, as is the very jovial scene of the three main nuns sharing ice cream with Deloris. One of the most classic lines and moments from the film is gone as well. This is the infamous "Alma! Alma! Turn your hearing aid on!"
The one book scene that really does not work is the thugs chasing Deloris. If you recall in the film the henchmen chased the nuns all over the Las Vegas casino floor, zooming through lanes of slot machines and tourists. For the stage version, this chase is set in the nuns' sleeping quarters within the church. In New York the set piece was an actual two floor unit for the quarters. For the tour it is now a backdrop with only the bottom floor used. This scene reminds you of those classic Marx Brothers films with all those doors slamming and everyone running and chasing each other with lots of people mistaking each other as the primary victim they are looking for. On stage it just lacks more hearty laughs. It's a slightly rehashed comedy staging that we've seen before. Also, the constant door slamming caused the backdrop to really wobble and wave, killing the illusion of an actual wall. Again, a minor, nitpicky hiccup here.
But the "meat and potatoes" of the film is still intact within the stage book. Where the minor bumps surface is in leaving supporting characters behind by giving them weak content in regards to subtext and full characterization, or being assigned a weak song or no real solo at all. The three major nuns really need a great trio song because they are so hilarious and are quite vital within the show. The solo number given to Curtis Jackson is the one lackluster song in the score as it doesn't sync smoothly into the book. You do get a sense the creators struggled greatly to give Curtis momentum and purpose on the stage but somehow it just doesn't quite fit. The majority of the book works its magic by providing great character development and arcs, moving the story along with crisp briskness and segueing beautifully from song to song.
There are differences from the West End and Broadway versions. It is the Broadway version that the national tour has recreated here. In Act One in London the nuns sang "How I Got the Calling" and "Do the Sacred Mass". Those were cut and replaced with "It's Good to Be a Nun" when it reached New York. In London, Mother Superior did not have a major solo, but for Broadway she was given "Haven't Got a Prayer". Also, the names of the villains in London were named Shank, TJ, Bones and Dinero. Broadway switched them to Curtis, Joey, Pablo, and TJ. The rest stayed intact from London to the Broadway version.
Alan Menken's score is overflowing with yummy ear candy. It brings back those infamous "Philly" Disco sounds that made their music so unique in the 70s era. Menken brings in those themes of funky bass, pounding drums and orchestrated strings to many of the songs. Other songs are classic Menken. They have that sweet familiar composition that reminds you of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. In Sister Act, those songs are sung primarily by Mother Superior. Glenn Slater's lyrics fit in perfect harmony with Menken's score and the book. The majority of the songs have solid character development given to them in the lyrics. Slater also has a quick wit as several lyrics are hysterically written. I was most impressed on the distinctive way he chose which words to rhyme. As it is in musical compositions, when it comes to lyrics the last two words per verse tend to rhyme. Like "take and bake", that sort of thing. Slater uses fresher words and some great zingers to create those rhymes.
The score is so infectious you cannot help but smile and tap your feet to the beat. There are quite a few numbers within the score that I particularly enjoyed including, "It's Good to Be a Nun", "I Could Be That Guy", "Raise Your voice", "Sunday Morning Fever", "Lady in the Long Black Dress", "The Life I Never Led", the "Fabulous, Baby!" dream sequence, and the finale number "Spread the Love Around".
So many of today's new batch of musicals suffers from lackluster scores. Bless the heavens above because Sister Act The Musical is a grand breath of artistic fresh air with their sizzling score.
Anthony Van Laast's choreography is outstanding in that he worked around the long black costumes the nuns wear which somewhat restricts what they can do dance-wise . So a lot of Van Laast's choreograph is grandiose, funky, specific with unique hand, arm, and head movements. The nuns execute this choreography with clean, very tight precision. And the choreography creates some dazzling stage pictures when the full cast is on. Laast pays great homage to disco and funk with his choreography. It is stellar work created by him for this musical.
Klara Zieglerova's scenic design is primarily a series of painted backdrops and small unit pieces that appear from either side of the stage. The center stage has several well-crafted set units such as the seedy bar that the nuns barge into and Eddie's apartment.
The towering backdrops that frame the church scenes, as well as the backdrop for the central piece, the Opalescent Glass in the sanctuary, are gorgeous in its color design. It illuminates in an array of rich hues that really lights up the stage!
Dead center behind the nuns' "mini-stage" is a massive statue of Mary. Wait till you see how she plays into the show later on! It's a showstopper set piece!
Natasha Katz's lighting design is what you come to expect from this Tony Award Winner.
I have been a great admirer of her work since I saw her Tony award-winning work with Aida on Broadway. She's also designed Beauty and the Beast, Once (her second Tony win), and The Addams Family, among others. For Sister Act, she soaks the sets in really rich, glorious splashes of color. In the first scene, set in Curtis' nightclub, behind Deloris and her backup singers is a hanging wall unit that contains rows of blinding LED spinning bubbles and long neon bulbs that spew amazing colors and patterns. When it comes to the big company numbers and Deloris' disco dream sequence, Katz went all out with blinding color, amazing gobos, and specific cues that match both the music and the chorography superbly.
The costumes designed by Lez Brotherston stay true to 1978. There are the polyester suits, the bell bottoms and other every day wear that are period appropriate. I do like that the character Joey is dressed kind of like Al Pacino's Serpico. The nuns wear what you'd expect. But it's the finale where Brotherston goes all out! I won't spoil it for you here, but talk about wow! And I mean WOW! Also listen closely when Deloris references several times within the show a dream she has. This will all come to light in the second Act in regards to costumes. Those finale costumes made me drool with great delight.
The entire cast does a first rate job as a company. The ensemble really work their butts off all evening long, going from seedy bar patrons to nuns to street bums to disco fantasy dancers and so on. They execute the choreography wonderfully and sing with thumping funkiness.
Special kudos must go to the ensemble of the nuns. They are, and yes I know, how cliché , they are heavenly divine! The audience completely falls in love with them. As a group, they become great scene stealers in several scenes. Their first choir rehearsal had me rolling over in laughter. Several have their own special characterizations such as the nun who has a slight issue with Tourette's syndrome and yells clear out of the blue a hysterical one liner.
Then there's the nun who somehow becomes bilingual in the second act or the nun who seems to pass out, and so on. They bring magical life to the choreography like a sea of Supremes. Who needs Diana Ross when you have these girls! But when they sing, it is sublime.
The harmonies are tight and crisp, the crescendos are all unified. They can be singing sacred church music in one measure, then turn on a dime and go full out Parliament-Funkadelic the next! They sing so beautifully that I'm sure some angels up in the heavens are sitting on clouds mumbling, "Oh great, now we have some real competition!" They will steal your heart, these wacky, mirthful gang of nuns!
Kingsley Leggs originated the role of Curtis Jackson on Broadway. I first saw Mr. Leggs on Broadway when he originated the role of Mister in The Color Purple. He is a fascinating actor that commands the stage. But tragically, in Sister Act the role just doesn't click in book and song. We get his affair with Deloris, but the shooting scene and his other scenes somehow feel clunky. It's not Mr. Leggs' fault whatsoever; the book fails him. His one song, "When I Find My Baby", never leaps off the music sheet to make it memorable. Some of the lyrics are meant to be funny, but after the ugly shooting of the stool pigeon, he breaks into song and the two just don't match well. It's a thinly written role. Mr. Leggs gives it his all, doing his upmost best to sell both his character
and song, but alas it is stuck in neutral.
Todd A. Horman (Joey); Ernie Pruneda (Pablo) and Charles Barksdale (TJ) fare much better in book and music as Curtis' trio of henchmen. Each has their own special brand of comedy to bring to the table. Horman, who somehow looks like a combination of Serpico and John Holmes, is the deep-voiced, very tall thug of the group. He is hilarious and steals the trio's number, "Lady in the Long Black Dress" in Act Two. Pruneda is the suave, Latin thug who uses his machismo to its fullest. Barksdale portrays TJ as a thug who has several sandwiches missing from his picnic basket. He has a few splinters in the windmills of his mind. His goofy approach to TJ works very well with his characterization, resulting in some hearty laughs. All three men have a great show stopping number with "Lady in the Long Black Dress". The choreography and vocals they bring are marvelous and very, very jocular.
As Eddie Souther, E. Clayton Cornelious brings an adorable charm to the role. He is the cop who has had a crush on Deloris since high school but was too shy to let her know. His chemistry with Ta'rea Campbell as Deloris is vivid and quite strong. But wait till you hear his big solo, "I Could Be That Guy". It is a soulful, belting ballad that Cornelious sings with great gusto.
Richard Pruitt is Monsignor O'Hara, and while this is a featured role, Pruitt is sinfully hysterical none the less . He achieves comedic gold in several of his scenes. And what he does later in the show when he introduces the nuns will have you rolling in the aisles!
Florence Bagel portrays Mary Patrick and Karen Elliott portrays Mother Lazarus. In the film it was Kathy Najimy as Sister Mary Patrick and the late Mary Wickes as Sister Mary Lazarus. And in those roles , the two amazing comediennes were the scene stealers. They were so memorable. Thankfully, both Bagel and Elliott achieve that same outcome in the stage version. Both women pay respectful homage to Najimy and Wickes but also bring their own talents to the roles. Their musical numbers are major crowd pleasers all evening long. But their comedic talents are the icing on the cake. Both ladies have flawless comedic timing, pace, and delivery. You could tell the audience simply adored them!
Lael Van Keuren is Mary Robert, the youngest and a very shy convent nun. Keuren was in the ensemble for the original Broadway production but for the national tour she has the role that for me personally has the best solo number of the night, "The Life I Never Led". This girl has some MAJOR vocal pipes that astound you. As her character's shyness begins to peel away, her solos in some of the full company numbers are splendid. But when it comes to her Act Two solo, she literally steals the show. Hers is a phenomenal soprano voice that, as the song progresses, floats on the transgressions without a hint of a crack or break. When it comes to the long, sustaining belt ending, this powerful voice soars so high and belts with the force of a mighty earthquake, that the audience screamed and rewarded her with an ear shattering applause.
Hollis Resnik, as Mother Superior, delivers a superlative performance. Her comedic craft is smashing. She has the born talent to nail a line with the right pause, timing and vocal inflection. She's her own special rim shot with her comedy. The role could have stayed rigid and cold, but Resnik wisely gives the role shades and levels to flesh out a solid characterization. She's a task master when it's required but also a confused, conflicted woman who has dedicated her life to the lord. She also knows when to kick in some great vaudeville razzamatazz when the scene calls for it. Her two big numbers, "Here Within These Walls", and especially, "Haven't Got a Prayer" are exquisite vocal performances.
It's gotta be tough knowing that the audience is so familiar with Whoopi Goldberg in the lead role and one of your jobs is to make them forget her.
But Ta'rea Campbell, playing Deloris Van Cartier, does climb that mountain and comes out a winner in the role!
The girl is covered in forceful, dynamic stage presence. She is surrounded with quite an array of very talented comedic performers and she knows exactly when to step aside, then return back with impeccable comedic craft.
She plays off the other nuns like a comedic pro. It's like watching a comedy ping pong match. She hits a comic zinger to the nuns and Mother Superior, they volley back with a bigger laugh, but Campbell returns with an even funnier comeback. The way she uses her facial expressions, timing, pace and delivery makes her comedy so side splitting hilarious. The Christmas day lunch scene with the nuns is a perfect example of how Campbell slays the audience with her bag of comedic tricks. She does have this layer of sassy "You go girlfriend!" that she plays to the hilt when the scene calls for it and it is a laugh riot when she does go there. You could say, "This girl can sing". But um, no . You say, "This girl can SING!" She has a compelling and impressive soprano voice full of soul. Talk about taking it to church!
Several of her songs such as "Take Me To Heaven", "Raise Your Voice" Fabulous, Baby!", "Sister Act" and "Spread the Love Around" are colossal, full out show
stoppers for this power lunged, captivating singer.
After you hear her singing you too will raise your hands in the air and shout, "Hallelujah!" Ms. Campbell is magnificent as Deloris and carries the show like a true star.
After watching the show Tuesday night, I can now see why this musical became a surprise critical hit on Broadway.
Audiences now are getting a tad tired of films being made into musicals, so many on Broadway groaned when Sister Act came to the Great White Way. There are more flops than hits when it comes to the genre of "film into stage musical".
But this musical is quite different. It has a hysterical and very ingenious book which is rare in today's musical world. The original score has mostly terrific, solid, great songs that'll make you go buy the cast recording because you loved the music so much. There are major hurdles to leap over to reach the finish line and win when it comes to the film to musical crossover, and Sister Act The Musical achieves that goal!
But to make the book and score really work you need a sensational cast that have out of this world vocals and precise, razor sharp comedic skills. This national tour company has that in abundance!
Sister Act The Musical is that rare gem of a new musical where magically it all comes together. You will treasure the tremendous joy that will fill your heart after seeing this musical! Can I get an Amen?!
Dallas Summer Musicals
909 1st Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210
Through June 16th
Tuesday – Sunday at 7:30 pm, Saturday – Sunday at 1:30 pm
Additional performance on Thursday, June 13th at 1:30 pm.
There is no 7:30 pm performance on Sunday, June 16th.
Tickets are priced from $15.00 - $80.00.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.dallassummermusicals.org.
You may also call them at 214-691-7200 or go in person to The Box Office at 5959 Preston Royal Shopping Center in Dallas or any Ticketmaster location.
For groups of 10 or more, call 214-426-GROUP (4768).