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5/26/2024        SISTER ACT:  THE DIVINE MUSICAL           Aurora Theatre


0526 pgm Sister Act.jpg

Way back in 2007 (it seems like at least 17 years ago), the Alliance Theatre premiered a Broadway-bound musical version of the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg comedy Sister Act.   I was underwhelmed at the time, both by its leading actress and with the show itself, but I did see it a 2nd time with the understudy in the role, an understudy who was light years better than the original star.


After going from Atlanta to London, the show was tweaked some when it finally landed on Broadway in 2011, and it is this version that we are now seeing on the Aurora’s main stage.


Let’s make no bones about it.  This is a bravura production, with a dynamo central performance by Jasmine Renee’ Ellis, with some really terrific supporting work by Shelly McCook (Mother Superior), Marcus Hopkins-Turner (bad-guy Curtis), Jemarcus Kilgore (goof-guy cop Eddie), and understudy Kendall Berry upstaging all her sisters as novice Sister Mary Robert, whose “The Life I Never Led” is the musical highlight of the show.  Scenic Designer Alan E. Schwanke, Lighting Designer Kevin Frazier, and Sound Designer Daniel Pope have collaborated for a beautifully-looking and beautifully sounding production, and costumer Alice Neff (**) and Music Director Ann-Carol Pence do a fantastic job of creating a look and sound that perfectly place the actors and the story in Philadelphia of the mid-1970’s.

This show is a true crowd-pleaser, and conversations after the show never strayed far from “It was wonderful” and “Best show I’ve seen.”  The house was filled with laughter and smiles and ecstatically tapping feet and the after-show lobby with smiling faces on more-than-satisfied play-goers.


So, why did it leave me feeling “Meh?”  It could be as basic as the 70’s not being my favorite era, the disco banalities and not-back-beat rhythms killing any fondness my youth had for pop music.  And this score (Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater) is as unmemorable as any of the so-called “hits” of the era.  Well, aside from “The Life I Never Led,” which is a bombastic anthem from a young woman “chomping at the bit” to embtace all the living her chosen novitiate seems intent on denying her.


And this is my main problem with the book (well, aside from the reality that the original movie never really appealed to me).  If Sister Mary Roberts really misses these things, why did she become a novice?  Were her eyes not open to the sacrifices she was expected to make?  In general, these are not “real” nuns, but a non-Catholic’s stereotype of nuns – robed and repressed women just waiting for a Sistah from ‘Hood to let them cut loose.  This always struck me as patronizing and not a little insulting to those who choose to lead a life of prayer and reflection and service.  It says those who choose this life are, essentially, misguided, that fame and fortune and applause are truer spiritual Northern Stars than faith and humility.


Apropos of nothing, is it credible that  ALL the convent choir can be that out-of-tune but synchronize (and be perfectly on key) after a single rehearsal with the divine Ms. Deloris?  But I digress …


If you need a recap, Deloris Van Cartier is a lounge singer at the dive of big-time hood Curtis who witnesses the killing of a police informer.  At the behest of low-level police cop Eddie, she “hides” in a convent where she teaches the choir how to bring on da funk and bring in the tithes.   But her penchant for publicity brings the nuns into Curtis’s cross-hairs, putting everyone in danger.


As you can see by my skim-deep description, this is a very contrived plot with characters who must make questionable (some would say downright idiotic) choices to work.  The romantic subplot between Deloris and Eddie seems like an afterthought, and the climax is a serious breach of ….   But it all seems to appeal to people-not-me, so I will leave it to you to find out, content in the realization that my reaction is not in the mainstream, that there’s some element of willing suspension of disbelief I was not willing to suspend but most others are. 


At the end, the dark habits of the nuns are replaced by sequined versions that would not be out of place at a drag show, and I found it not a little condescending and insulting.  Bear in mind that I have been religiously skeptical for most of my life, and would never share a nun’s passion or devotion.  But I have seen how religion and faith can give strength to those who have it and honestly rely upon it, which may be why I seem to be (overly) sensitive to it being belittled, even if the mockery is understated and mostly sub-textual.


It doesn’t help that the villains here are cliched numbskulls (an Hispanic thug named “Pablo” who chooses to not communicate in English?  REALLY???) whose actions are all at the contrived service of the plot, most of which make no sense at all, especially the final confrontation. 


I have delayed a bit getting this composed and posted, simply because I didn’t want to think about this show any more than I must.  I am even listening to the London Cast recording as I write this in the hopes that my knee-jerk reaction to its “Meh-esque” quality is not a result of of my own non-faith worldview, but my indifference to the ‘70’s pop-song tropes.  {Sigh}  Only that one song is memorable.  Well two, but, for whatever reason, the bouncy number (“How I Got the Calling”) in which the nuns all recount their roads to sisterhood has been cut in this version.  (For the record, I especially despise Curtis’s “When I Find my Baby,” 

a blandly offensive anthem to the joys of killing the one you love, as it were.)


But I have a life to live and many (hopefully more-to-my-liking) shows to see, so let me wrap this up.


To its credit, Sister Act is up to the Aurora’s always superior level of craftmanship, design, and performance.   It is a bravura entertainment that finds root and gives rapturous joy to playgoers-not-I.  To be honest, it makes me sad that I am outside the target audience for such an obviously crowd-pleasing musical.  But pretending to like (and writing an “appreciation” for) a show I find merely “Meh” would be a sin of divine proportions.


    -- Brad Rudy (   ##ATSisterAct )



**   Special kudos for the double-rip-away costume that makes Eddie’s “I Could Be That Guy” such a delight to the eyes.  Remind me again how it goes?

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