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Marriott Theatre's 'Sister Act' is flashy fun

There's something about singing and dancing nuns in musical theater. Whether fretting about Maria in "The Sound of Music" or deploying showbiz schtick in "Nunsense," nuns in full habits breaking into song can be big at the box office.

Aiming to join their ranks are the boogying nuns of "Sister Act." The 2011 Broadway musical inspired by the hit 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film makes its regional debut at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire in a splashy production that comes off far better than the material itself.

"Sister Act" swirls around self-absorbed aspiring disco diva Deloris Van Cartier, cheerfully played by a vocally adept Stephanie Umoh. Deloris is forced to go into hiding after witnessing a murder by her mobster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson (a cool and menacing Byron Glenn Willis).

Fawning Officer Eddie Souther (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, with a great gospel singing voice) comes up with the show's fish-out-of-water conceit of hiding Deloris in a cash-strapped Philadelphia convent. The Mother Superior (a tightly wound Hollis Resnik) is livid, especially once Deloris whips up the previously tone-deaf choir into a razzle-dazzle gospel troupe that boosts Sunday attendance to the rafters.

The "Sister Act" script by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with additional jokes by Douglas Carter Beane) is a tad naughtier than Joseph Howard's original film screenplay -- especially with its many drug references and sexual innuendo. It's often funny, but also clunky with moments of forced tenderness and plot-stopping songs (particularly the smarmy seduction number involving Curtis' comic thugs played by Mark Hood, Todd A. Horman and Jason Slattery).

One major issue with "Sister Act" is that it tries to do too much. The musical uneasily straddles being an edgy, self-aware camp comedy while also professing pious bona fides of faith. At times, "Sister Act" plays like an outrageous Catholic cartoon mashed up with the earnestness of a 1990s TV episode of "Touched by an Angel."

Plus, the large number of singing nuns doesn't allow for ample characterizations, so they often come off as types with quirky traits rather than fully fleshed-out individuals. But Marriott's hardworking and talented ensemble does its best to counter this, especially Tiffany Tatreau as the meek postulant Mary Robert and Lillian Castillo as the sunny Mary Patrick.

On stage, "Sister Act" is shifted back in time to the late 1970s to allow composer Alan Menken ("Beauty and the Beast," "Little Shop of Horrors") and lyricist Glen Slater ("Tangled," "School of Rock") to write a grooving disco score. Though the cumulative effect can feel derivative, the homages to original disco-era songs are fun and performed with vocal verve under music director Doug Peck.

In his Marriott debut, director Don Stephenson oversees a pulsating production that is big on tacky and sparkly 1970s fashions (a major credit to costume designer Nancy Missimi) and flashy color (a great collaboration by set designer Thomas M. Ryan and lighting designer Jesse Klug). Choreographer Melissa Zaremba also manages the precarious balance created by dancing nuns.

So it's hard not to smile when holy women in habits bust a move. And Marriott's fine production mines the material for all its worth.