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NY Theater Reviews

Patina Miller/ Ph: Joan Marcus

PREACHIN' THROUGH THE CHOIR

By BERNARD CARRAGHER

Sister Act may not be a work of art, but it is a lot of heaven-sent revelry.

Sister Act is the latest Hollywood brand to get the Broadway musical treatment. Based on the successful 1992 movie starring Whoopie Goldberg and Maggie Smith, the musical turns out to be a contender – a fun time that sets out to do nothing more than simply entertain, something that most of the big musicals of this season have not been able to deliver. It is playing at the Broadway Theatre at 53rd Street and Broadway.
 
Sister Act on stage pretty much tries to retain the same flavor that it did on screen, only on stage it has a score by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a new book written by no less than three writers: Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner of TV’s Cheers fame and doctored by playwright Douglas Carter Beane. The setting has been changed from Reno to 1970’s Philadelphia, and the music, with a couple of exceptions, is mostly generic spoofs of the disco and Motown sounds of the era.
          
The show’s star is a remarkable 26-year-old Patina Miller, in Goldberg’s movie role, playing black singer Deloris Van Cartier, who witnesses a murder and to save her life takes cover as a nun in a local convent. She lands in the one congregation on the planet occupied with a choir of tone-deaf nuns. Not only does Miller take the veil, but she performs a miracle in teaching the nuns to sing. The story resonates The Sound of Music in reverse.
 
Miller, who played the role of Deloris for a year in London – she was also Dionne in the pre-Broadway Central Park run of the revival of Hair a few summers ago – is a dazzling presence, a glorious singer who keeps the show moving at a hurricane pace. Her fellow sisters, and there is a whole convent of them, play the show with tongue in cheek and caper through all sorts of silliness in high spirits. Not only do they make the story amusing, they keep it that way for two acts. Working in tandem with Miller is her co-star and the convent’s Mother Superior, Victoria Clark, another extraordinary talent, who won a Tony a few years ago for The Light in the Piazza. She mainly steers clear of the cliché of being an overbearing authority figure and gives a nice modulated performance. We also have the treat of hearing her fine voice take flight in four passable Menken/Slater songs. No vocally challenged Mother Superior is Clark.
 
The men in Sister Act are mainly tangential to the musical’s plot, although two of the guys do get a chance to shine. Kingsley Leggs, as Deloris’ former gangster lover Curtis Jackson, lets loose in act one with “When I Find My Baby,” and Chester Gregory, as her funny and touching policeman friend and potential love interest Eddie Souther, gets to croon a couple of tunes, most memorably a white-suited Bee Gees-inspired act-two showstopper.
 
Jerry Zaks, who used to be a fine director of comedies and musicals, these days seems to stage everything the same: faster, funnier and broadly (e.g. The Addams Family). Anthony Van Laast has created lively, if not distinctive, choreography. The physical production of the show blazes with color designed by Klara Ziegleroua. The costumes, particularly the nun’s habits, get flashier and more Bob Mackie- and Las Vegas-like with each new song number, designed by Lez Brotherston. And the flashy, inspirited lighting is by Natasha Katz.
 
Sister Act may not be a work of art, but it is a lot of heaven-sent revelry.