Review: ‘Sister Act’ at Walnut Street Theatre

Even if you haven’t seen the musical version of Sister Act, you might think you know what it’s going to be like. After all, it’s a musical based on a familiar hit movie. It’s about a bunch of funny nuns, a comedic concept that’s been done to death. And it’s got a plot that you will probably find predictable even if you haven’t seen the movie.

Laura Giknis (left) and ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Laura Giknis (left) and ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Then why is the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Sister Act so much fun?

Largely it’s because of the exuberance of Richard Stafford’s direction, Douglass G. Lutz’s musical direction, and a top-notch cast. Even when the score and the book don’t live up to their potential – and that’s quite a bit of the time – Sister Act manages to be extremely entertaining.

The basic outline of the 1992 movie’s plot remains intact: nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier inadvertently witnesses her mobster boyfriend commit a murder, and hides out in a convent to avoid getting whacked by his mob. While posing as a nun, she butts heads with the stern Mother Superior, turns the convent’s lackluster choir into a musical powerhouse, and inadvertently puts her life, and the nuns’ lives, at risk.

The musical’s book transplants the action from contemporary San Francisco to Philadelphia circa 1977. This allows for a score with elements of disco and seventies soul; you’ll hear songs reminiscent of Donna Summer, Barry White, and Gamble and Huff’s Philly soul. The music is by Alan Menken, and it serves as a reminder of how he evoked early R&B styles in his breakthrough show, Little Shop of Horrors.

Kent Overshown and Dan'yelle Williamson. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Kent Overshown and Dan’yelle Williamson. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The score also shows off some of the soaring melodicism Menken perfected writing animated musicals for Disney; the show’s best song, “The Life I Never Led,” is a gorgeous, moving power ballad that ranks with Menken’s best songs from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. (It’s sung forcefully here by Laura Giknis, who’s adorable as the meekest of the nuns.)

Yet much of the score of Sister Act is surprisingly lackluster, with songs that seem more calculated than inspired. Many of the songs are more notable for their buoyant rhythms than for their restrained melodies. Deloris’ big disco number “Fabulous, Baby!” is reprised three times, and it seems more monotonous each time.

Glenn Slater’s lyrics are often quite clever and touching, but they have a tendency to be inappropriately crude. When Deloris’ mobster ex (played by the smooth Philip Michael Baskerville) sings of how he’s going to “drown that girl / or disembowel that girl,” you may wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong theater by mistake.

The book, written by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane, keeps the plot rolling efficiently and adds a few new plot elements – like an affecting romance between Deloris and the cop in charge of her case – without complicating matters too much. But a lot of the jokes are corny and seem inserted to get a quick laugh even if they’re not true to the character. (Is it really believable that someone who attended Catholic school for twelve years wouldn’t know the words to the Lord’s Prayer?)

There’s a lot to love about Sister Act, starting with Dan’yelle Williamson’s dynamic, superbly sung performance as Deloris. She’s a much more conventional leading lady than Whoopi Goldberg was in the movie; most of Deloris’ quirks have been smoothed down. But Williamson is quite winning in her own way, and she makes Deloris easy to root for.

Dan'yelle Williamson and ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Dan’yelle Williamson and ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Mary Martello makes a terrific foil as Mother Superior, delivering some withering put-downs in an arch style. (This is a very different nun than the one Martello played in Doubt a few years back.) Kent Overshown is sweet and soulful as the cop who pines for Deloris. And the show allows a bunch of scene-stealing supporting players to get time in the spotlight, including Ron Wisniski as an eye-rolling priest and Fran Prisco as a mobster. And the nuns get a big share of the laughs, including Melissa Joy Hart as a jovial sister and Diane J. Findlay as a crusty sister with a hidden and unexpected talent.

Stafford’s fast-moving production manages to make it seem like everyone is having a great time, although his choreography uses too many of those John Travolta hand twirls from Saturday Night Fever. Peter Barbieri’s set design suggests a lot with a little, using high arches against a black background to suggest a vast church. And Gail Baldoni’s seventies-style costumes, which make good use of solid colors, floral prints and sequins, are exceptional.

Sister Act is so insistently upbeat that it’s hard to resist.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.

Sister Act plays through July 17, 2016 on the mainstage at the Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 982-2787, or purchase them online.


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