REVIEW: 'Sister Act'

PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

by Jessica Rine

If familiarity with the 1992 film Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith went back into the recesses of the brain along with memories of scrunchies and The Running Man, here’s a refresher: Lounge singer witnesses a murder and gets placed in protective custody in a convent. She butts heads with the Mother Superior, but makes a place for herself taking over the church choir, thus bringing new life to the otherwise failing church. Her cover gets blown, the bad guys come for her, but her sisters don’t let her face it alone.

That’s the basic skeleton of the musical version. Disney vets Alan Menken and Glenn Slater wrote some new songs, the characters got fleshed out a little, and Sister Act the Musical came to life, earning five Tony award nominations in 2011. Well deserved.

A touring version opened at the Community Center Theatre Tuesday as part of California Musical Theatre’s Broadway Sacramento program.

The show is clever, entertaining, extremely funny, honest, and full of joy, transformation, love and music. The songs are catchy without being annoying, the cast is excited and amorous, the dialogue is punchy, and the choreography throws back to that era when the white man was allowed to dance.

Sister Act begins outright with a fun disco number, Deloris Van Cartier (Ta’Rea Campbell) front and center, and if there is any discrepancy of where the show is set, it is quickly put to rest as Deloris hollers that the year is 1977 and it is Christmas Eve.

Campbell shows off her talents right away, using the melodies to travel through the songs, and letting her big, rich voice float over the crowd. She makes the character of Deloris her own, fabulously wild with tons of ‘70s attitude. Her sex appeal is balanced by her ability to be silly.

Campbell handles the whole of Deloris with professionalism and grace, but it’s with the song “Sister Act” that she displays some of her best work in the show. The emotion behind the powerhouse vocals is breathtaking and heart wrenching.

The orchestra, unfortunately, is a little overpowering. Campbell, and a few other soloists, get drowned out by the orchestra’s loud keyboards, especially on those hard-to-hear low notes.

The show’s structure is well balanced. In the first act, the show uses the songs to accentuate the scenes, which are heavy with dialogue, setting up character and background. It soars through the second act, driving the story with song after song, each one better than the last. The numbers are powerful without being overbearing, and they move at a nice pace.

Humor is subtle, not overdone. The Catholic humor definitely gets some chuckles, but it’s good-natured and not overly cheesy. Songs including “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” and “Lady in the Long Black Dress” play to the strengths of the ensemble cast and earn uproarious laughter.

A true ensemble show, Sister Act allows for a lot of great breakout moments. The nuns each get a little spotlight in “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” where they list all of the great things about being cloistered in true old musical ensemble fashion. Curtis (Melvin Abston) is a cool, calm, almost sexy villain, and gets to sing the darkly comedic number, “When I Find My Baby.” His lackeys (Charles Barksdale, Chis Chatman, Tad Wilson Chris Cooke) get their moment with “Lady in a Long Black Dress” showing off their best ways to pick up a nun. They really sink into the number, taking advantage of every moment. Sister Mary Robert (Ashley Moniz) comes out of nowhere and breaks out the “I have an inner struggle” song for the show, “The Life I Never Led.” Moniz rocks it, making timid and afraid moving into brave and boisterous in the span of a song believable.

The costumes get an honorable mention. Not only for the tear-away cop and disco clothes for the fantastic number “I Could Be That Guy,” expertly performed by Chester Gregory, but also the creativity with the habits is a craft well honed. There is skill at work in making the habits look different with each number, and the amount of glitter and sparkles in the show would be overwhelming if it was done wrong, and it just wasn’t.

Sister Act, 8 p.m. nightly through Saturday April 12; 2 p.m. Saturday, April 12 and Sunday, April 13; $21-$88. Community Center Theater, 1310 L Street.; (916) 557-1999; www.broadwaysacramento.com.

*Editor’s note: Chris Cooke replaced Tad Wilson for the show.