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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the London Palladium


  Sheila Hancock and Patina Miller/Ph: Catherine Ashmore

I came to this musical version of Whoopi Goldberg's  1992 film rather late. And in the period between the musical's London premiere and the night I caught up with it, I had confirmed to me a lesson that all London theatregoers know well - that there are almost as many critical opinions as there are London critics. Unlike New York, where one notice rules, the trick here is to find a reviewer who matches your taste.

In this case the opinion took the form of a grave shake of the head when, during the interval of another show I asked an esteemed colleague for her opinion of Sister Act. I feared as much. The film was a fitfully entertaining but uninspired rehash of Billy Wilder's brilliant Some Like It Hot. Except that in Sister Act it is not two men who witness a gangland murder but a  bawdy night club singer and gangster's moll Deloris, played by Goldberg in the original movie and in the stage version Patina Miller in her West End debut. And whereas in Some Like It Hot the witnesses evade their killers by disguising themselves as members of a touring all-female band, in Sister Act Deloris takes refuge in a convent where her body is hidden under a nun's habit and her spirit comes under the authority of Sheila Hancock's austere but good hearted Mother Superior.

So hopes were not high for this adaptation of a rehash with a plot about as predictable as sunrise. Yet there is a lot of talent attached to Peter Schneider's production. The music is by Alan Menken whose scores have scooped more Oscars (8)than anyone else alive; the book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner whose comedy credits include Cheers and Glenn Slater, Menken's long-time collaborator since the death of Howard Ashman, has written the lyrics. But anyone whose seen the same Shakespeare play more than once knows that a predictable plot is no barrier to the emotions. And the skill with which this tired tale is delivered elicits feel-good factor by the gallon.

It's mostly down to Menken's music, which gets solid support from Slater's lyrics. The composer is the greatest exponent of pastiche in the business. With his first hit Little Shop of Horrors the score resurrected 60s R&B and rock 'n' roll. With Sister Act it's 70's disco soul. It was clever to move the setting back to that pastiche-able era. The location has also been moved - from Reno to Philadelphia.

Menken's talent is for rooting a new tune in a past era without shackling himself to old melodies. The first few bars of a song like Lady in the Long Black Dress could raise expectations that Lionel Richie is about to walk onto the stage. Instead, we have a comic trio of thugs crooning about the moves necessary for nun seduction. And when their boss Shank, Deloris's ex and bad-ass, sonorous Pimp (Chris Jarman) sings When I Find My Baby, the song could have been written for the king of lurve himself Barry White but for the lyrics, "And when I get that girl, I'm going to kill that girl".

Upon this expert score the show builds a series of winning set pieces including a nun choir drilled by Deloris into a glitzy chorus line and featuring Eddie, a shy cop (Ako Mitchell) who when he fantasises about life as the king of disco sheds his uniform to reveal John Travolta garb and then sheds again returning to his uniform. A theatrical cliché turned into a moment of real wit and invention. Patina Miller delivers one of those performances - rather like Idina Menzel's in Wicked - that makes it hard to imagine that the show would be undiminished when she finishes her run. There is something wholesome about this South Carolina girl with a clarion voice but with a mischievous Mae West curl of the mouth that makes a perfect foil to Hancock's haughty but nice Mother Superior. All this,and a rare chance to hear a live hammond organ from the 17-piece pit orchestra. Great stuff. Choose your critic carefully.


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