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A CurtainUp London London Review
Sister Act

Miss Van Cartier, people wish to kill you. (pause)
Anyone who has ever met you I should imagine!— Mother Superior
sister act
Some of the nuns in Sister Act
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Seeing Sister Act at the London Palladium, recently home to The Sound of Music, was a bizarre experience. I was expecting at any moment to hear that the director had fled over the mountains to Switzerland disguised as a nun but this crowd pleasing musical was one which made me think I'd landed on an alien planet.

What is there to like about this cheap, vulgar and tawdry recreation of a hit movie using the worst elements of brash 1970s musicals? I suppose I should fess up and tell you that the movie isn't on my all time list of favourites but I mostly found Whoopi Goldberg charming and funny. It didn't help that with everyone miked up to the nines, the sound levels where I was sitting were uncomfortable and, like everything else, seemed overstated.

The film Sister Act has a large following and the advance box office for the new musical with music by Alan Menken, who wrote the delightful Little Shop of Horrors, was exceptionally buoyant, especially in these recession bitten days. It is billed as a World Premiere but a version of it opened in Los Angeles in 2006 and ran for less than two months. It has obviously been fairly extensively re-written, with some new numbers and others dropped, which you can see if you compare the song list at the end of this review with those in Laura Hitchcock's review for Curtain Up in 2006 (LA review).

The second act is more successful than the first but aesthetically the design is crass and ugly throughout. In the convent we see Christ on the cross, but only from mid thigh down to enormous feet nailed together. The Queen of Angels Church has an ugly overly large Madonna with huge hands, think an Easter Island interpretation of a Madonna, and the stained glass is like a thousand kaleidoscopes onstage but not in a good way. It makes Disney look like the Royal Academy. The costumes too are flesh cringingly extreme, with nuns in sequinned habits with the tabard apron bit in gold lurex with red sequined hearts. The effect isn't light and witty but painful. I did like the second act contrasting pulls on Deloris when she departs the nunnery for show business in the shape of orange spangled gogo dancers with huge Afro wigs but along the balcony at the rear, is the call of the sisters, a black and white, stately parade of nuns.

In the original, Sister Mary Clarence, the disguised mobster's girlfriend Deloris Van Cartier (Patina Miller) taught the nuns to sing gospel which would have been beautiful. In this version it's rock music she encourages aided by guitar wielding vicars. I loved "Rhythm of Life" from Sweet Charity but somehow the numbers in Sister Act largely fail to ignite. Patina Miller has huge energy and can sing tremendously well but the comedy seemed forced and unnatural. Sheila Hancock plays the Mother Superior with admirable contrasting restraint.

Eddie the nervous cop known as Sweaty Eddie at school is played by Ako Mitchell and manages to twice whip off his costume with the aid of Velcro, he turns from uniformed cop to white suited, red shirted member of The Jackson Five and in turn whips off the white suit to return to a policeman's uniform but looking several pounds lighter. No wonder he's sweaty if he's wearing three lots of clothes!

The number I liked best had was the gangsters singing as if they were courting nuns in a beautiful soul number, "Lady in the Long Black Dress" with the truly wonderful voice of Thomas Goodridge as TJ and joined in a falsetto by Ivan de Freitas as Dinero. The lyrics were fun too, written as if they were advertising themselves on a dating site like the song about what call to God each of nuns had received, "How I got the Calling" (one rotund nun had seen the face of Jesus in a Coconut Cream Pie).

The emotional highpoint of the show is the sacrificial nuns standing between the armed gangster Shank (Chris Jarman) and his intended victim, Doloris, who will testify against him to say she saw him commit a murder. The choreography is based on nuns pumping up their arms in the air, funny to some but not to those of us who saw Phil Wilmott's high kicking Sound of Music nuns at Battersea some years back. The finale of Sister Act sees the nuns in full glitter habits, the glister sisters maybe. Pity my colleague who has to review Sister Act for The Catholic Herald!

Sister Act
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Directed by Peter Schneider
Choreographer: Anthony Van Last
Music director: Nicholas Skilbeck

Starring: Sheila Hancock, Patina Miller, Ian Lavender
With: Chris Jarman, Ako Mitchell, Katie Rowley Jones, Nicolas Colicos, Ivan de Freitas, Thomas Goodridge, Claire Greenaway, Julia Sutton, Amy Booth Steel, Debbie Kurup
Ensemble: Vaness Barmby, Julian Cannonnier, Helen Colby, Jennie Dale, Jaymz Denning, Kerry Enright, Nia Fisher, Allison Harding, Paul Kemble, George Daniel Long, Hugh Maynard, Jo Napthine, Aysa O'Flaherty, Landi Oshinowo, Verity Quade, Philippa Stefani, Helen Walsh
Swing: Ben Clare, Kate Coysten, Leigh Anne Stone, Michael Watson, Emma Woods
Set Design: Klara Zieglerova
Costume Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: Mick Potter
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Additional Arrangements: Simon Hale
Musical Supervisor, Vocal and Incidental Musical Arrangements: Michael Kosarin
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes including one interval
Booking to 13th February 2010
Box Office: 0844 412 2704
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 3rd June 2009 performance at the London Palladium, Argyll Street, London W1 (Tube: Oxford Circus)
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Take Me To Heaven - Deloris, KT, LaRosa and Backups
  • Fabulous, baby! - Deloris, KT, LaRosa
  • Here Within These Walls - Mother Superior and Nuns
  • How I Got The Calling - Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Robert and Nuns
  • When I Find My Baby - Shank, TJ, Bones, and Dinero
  • Do The Sacred Mass - Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Robert and Barflies
  • I Could Be That Guy - Eddie and Transients
  • Raise Your Voice — Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Robert and Nuns
  • Take Me To Heaven (Reprise) - Monsignor Howard, Deloris , Mother Superior, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Robert and Photographers
Act II
  • Sunday Morning Fever - Monsignor Howard, Deloris , Mother Superior, Eddie, TJ, Bones, Dinero, Nuns and Barflies
  • Lady In The Long Black Dress - TJ, Bones, and Dinero
  • Bless Our Show - Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Robert and Nuns
  • Here Within These Walls (Reprise) - Mother Superior
  • The Life I Never Led - Mary Robert
  • Fabulous, Baby! (Reprise) — Deloris, Backups and Nuns
  • Sister Act - Deloris
  • When I Find My Baby (Reprise) - Shank
  • The Life I Never Led (Reprise) - Mary Robert
  • Sister Act (Reprise) - Deloris, Mother Superior, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Robert and Nuns
  • Spread The Love Around - Mother Superior, Deloris, Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus, Mary Robert Nuns and Altar Boy
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