Some 'Sister Act' songs soar, but script lacks divine inspiration

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2014 - 12:06 PM

“Sister Act” has its best moments in a full-throated spoof of religious ritual; too bad that the musical is stuck with such a trite story.

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credit: Joan Marcus The national touring version of “Sister Act” stars Ta’Rea Campbell, center, as a club singer who gets stuck in a convent.

Feel free to have that second cup of coffee after dinner if you’re heading to “Sister Act,” which rolled into the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis on Tuesday. You’ll miss some plot points — which means you miss nothing — and if you time your arrival just right, you will land on the shank of a musical that sings best in a sardonic and tangy melody.

Of course I am not serious about showing up late. That kind of bad behavior is tolerated only in church, not in the theater. I do, however, stand by the gibe about the lugubrious and trite script. “Sister Act” plays out as several stories welded together with Alan Menken’s disco-inspired score and spackled with 1970s glitter.

The musical, directed with Broadway sheen by the legendary Jerry Zaks, is based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg as a singer stuck in awkward circumstances. It is predicated on the notion that reverence is wittiest when it is treated with irreverence, trading on our dogmatic baggage that nuns are lifeless, stern knuckle rappers.

Get those wimpled ladies up on their feet, sliding and gliding to a funky Philadelphia beat, and you’ve got satire — certainly nothing profound, but familiarity has been known to tickle the funny bone.

In the national touring production, actor Ta’Rea Campbell manages to vamp with precocity and still vie for our sympathy. She plays Deloris Van Cartier, a so-so club singer who is hidden in a convent for her own protection after she sees her bad boyfriend ice a snitch. She shakes the dust from her new sisters and turns them into a happening ensemble that draws such crowds that the pope catches wind of them.

Menken’s score, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, lends itself to the full service of the spoof. A monsignor (Richard Pruitt) spins some Barry White looooove as he reaches out to the congregation. “Sunday Morning Fever” (not even John Travolta is sacred!) and “Take Me to Heaven” would make a good Catholic blush, or laugh in recognition.

But to enjoy these delicious entertainments, dear friends in (insert god figure here), you must endure the clichés of a script originally written by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and then padded by the kitschy pen of playwright Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu”). Several scenes scream “Cut me!” as we wend our way through the plot machinations.

Beyond that, it seems everyone gets a song and generally these numbers do nothing by occupy time.

But I’ll try to be positive. The best of these spotlights, “I Could Be That Guy,” by a cop (Chester Gregory) who is sweet on Deloris, earns its way out of Purgatory. Ashley Moniz as a timid yet winsome nun drawn out of her shell by Deloris also scorches the night with “The Life I Never Led,” a song out of Menken’s Disney oeuvre. Hollis Resnik portrays the stiff-spined Mother Superior with just enough flexibility to avoid caricature, and she can sing like a lark — a serious lark — in “Haven’t Got a Prayer.”

“It’s Good to Be a Nun” finds Slater’s lyrics landing with perfect wit and meter on Menken’s music.

This is Campbell’s show, and after a shaky start Tuesday night (those first 15-20 minutes were forgettable), she rose to the material. She sings with confidence and strength, and she stays away from the temptations of precious sass.

One might expect Anthony Van Laast’s choreography to occupy more psychic space in a story from the disco era, but it rarely dazzles. The spectacle rises to gaudy and ridiculous heights with spangled costumes (Lez Brotherston) and stained-glass sets (Klara Zieglerova).

If only that cheeky absurdity about religion were not saddled with burdensome Broadway conventions.

Who would have thought that church would be funnier than theater?

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

  • SISTER ACT,

    THE MUSICAL

    What: Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Jerry Zaks.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun.

    Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $49-$109, 1-800-982-2787 or www.hennepintheatre trust.org.

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