HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: ‘Sister Act’ rises to heavenly fun at the Marriott
Careening seamlessly between the goofily sublime and the utterly ridiculous, “Sister Act” is pure musical comedy “nunsense” — a show (like the 1992 film that inspired it) designed to supply its audience with both a heaven and a hell of a good time, which is exactly what the current Marriott Theatre production does.
Arriving on the heels of “Spring Awakening,” the theater’s hip, sophisticated, envelope-pushing production (an “outside the subscription series” experiment), “Sister Act” serves as a reminder of just how different Broadway hits can be in terms of their content, musical styles and overall spirit. To be sure, this is no “Sound of Music.” But with its playful post-Vatican II satire, its echoes of Donna Summer disco, its giant Afro hairdos, its Philadelphia inner-city-meets-failing-parish church backdrop and its subtly feminist subtext, it has its own redeeming values. And the terrific Marriott cast — zestily directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Doug Peck, an exuberant orchestra led by Patti Garwood and superbly comical, boogie-driven choreography by Melissa Zaremba — turns fun into a virtue worth striving for.
No need to spend too much time on the plot for this show, which comes with a lively pastiche of music by Alan Menken, notably clever lyrics by Glenn Slate and a feel-good book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (and Douglas Carter Beane), based on the Joseph Howard screenplay.
Suffice it to say that the place is Philly. The time is the late 1970s (when Pope John Paul II actually visited the city). And when sexy, aspiring pop singer and material girl Deloris Van Cartier (Stephanie Umoh, whose power voice is paired with subtle acting) witnesses her no-good, married boyfriend/manager Curtis Jackson (Byron Glenn Willis) shoot the young guy he believes has squealed on his fellow mobsters, she runs to the police.
Luckily she encounters a gentle cop, “Sweaty Eddie” Souther (the beguilinging Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, who brings down the house in every scene he’s in). Eddie has had a hopeless crush on Deloris since high school, and in an effort to keep her alive and to have her testify against Curtis, he arranges to have her hide in a nearby convent, the Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith. The convent’s by-the book Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik, memorably reprising the role she played in the show’s national tour several years ago) is not at all welcoming.
Of course Deloris causes chaos in the convent, with its bevy of nuns (all wonderfully played), its single postulant (Tiffany Tatreau, who shares the stage with another irrepressible spirit, Lillian Castillo, both stars of last season’ s “Ride the Cyclone” at Chicago Shakespeare) and the surprisingly open-minded Monsignor O’Hara (Don Forston, is expert form), who drops in from time to time. She also greatly improves the musical level. And eventually everyone is changed for the better — wiser, freer and happier. Meanwhile, as the rituals of the church start to resemble many of the rituals of showbiz, the pews begin to fill up as they hadn’t for years, and the Gothic-style convent (Thomas M. Ryan’s set is exceptionally good) can actually remain solvent.