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3 STARS: 'Sister Act' all in the service of musical fun


Sisters are doing it for themselves — with a glitzy assist from an on-the-run disco queen wannabe — in Lincolnshire. And unless you've given up silly-but-soulful musicals for Lent, Marriott Theatre's production of "Sister Act" mostly hits the sweet spot in female empowerment set to an ersatz-Seventies beat.

It helps that Don Stephenson's production stars Hollis Resnik, longtime local treasure and vet of the national tour, as Mother Superior. Resnik's deadpan dignity serves as a sturdy foil to Stephanie Umoh's flighty Deloris Van Cartier, the singer with more sass than sense who ends up in hiding at a convent when her married club-owning crime-boss boyfriend, Curtis (Byron Glenn Willis), finds out she's snitched to the cops about his murdering an associate.

Though based on the 1992 film comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, the 2011 musical resets the action from Reno and San Francisco to Philadelphia in the late 1970s. This means that Alan Menken's score (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) is heavy on the light funk and Philly soul, while Cheri and Bill Steinkellner's serviceable book weaves in references to cheese steaks at the drop of a wimple.

I've always thought that there's an echo in "Sister Act" of Howard Hawks' 1941 screwball comedy "Ball of Fire," in which Barbara Stanwyck's gangster moll/singer takes refuge with a group of celibate scholars. Like Stanwyck's Sugar O'Shea, Deloris brings passion and hip attitude to her rescuers, while they teach her about community and help her find a much-needed dash of self-control. Of course, unlike Sugar, Deloris doesn't find love in the convent — no Sapphic sisterhood here. For romance, there's Eddie Souther, or "Sweaty Eddie," a former high school classmate and cop who has never gotten over his crush on Deloris.

The mutual salvation for Deloris and the nuns comes through song, of course. (Hence the musical, duh.) By teaching the nuns' choir to rock out, Deloris helps fill the pews and stop the diocese's sale of the church to a pair of antique-loving bachelors (wink, nod). Heck, even His Holiness Pope Paul VI shows up by the end. (This isn't really a spoiler — relax.)

Umoh leavens Deloris' seemingly streetwise patter with hints of just how lost and naive she really is, which gives a needed touch of emotional honesty to both her sparring with Resnik's Mother Superior and her heart-to-hearts with shy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Tiffany Tatreau). The latter pops the roof off with "The Life I Never Led," an anthem for good girls wondering "Is that all there is?" and ready to grab the brass ring.

Stephenson's ensemble of singing nuns provides strong comic support throughout, especially Mary Robin Roth's vinegary Sister Mary Lazarus and Lillian Castillo's cockeyed optimist, Sister Mary Patrick. And Melissa Zaremba's choreography gets the habits flying and the booties shaking with comic invention.

As Eddie, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis gets a show-stopping number in "I Could Be That Guy." (It also features a terrific double-breakaway costume from Nancy Missimi, whose threads — from skintight disco dresses and polyester suits for the secular side to sequined surplices for the sisters once the soulful spirit of Deloris moves them — are a design highlight.)

Make no mistake — this show has some groan-worthy creaks in its dramaturgy. (The whole subplot about the church being sold really needs higher stakes.) If you're allergic to cute singing nuns, then you'll obviously wish to stay far away. Menken's score, while energetic and uplifting, with a few sly quotations from 1970s pop classics, isn't quite layered enough to overcome the more-obvious moments of personal revelation in the Steinkellners' book. (There is fine brass-and-bass-heavy work by the orchestra under the music direction of Doug Peck, with Patti Garwood conducting.) Nor would Slater's gently sardonic lyrics give Tom Lehrer a run for his "Vatican Rag" money.

Yet Umoh and Resnik in particular do a fine job in making us believe in the ridiculous premise of the relationship between Deloris and Mother Superior, and in the evolution of that relationship. "Sister Act" may not take you to musical heaven, but the cast has enough soul and smarts to provide a critical Mass of entertainment value.