From "The Blues Brothers" to "Sound of Music," the entertainment industry has demonstrated that everyone loves to laugh at old-school ruler-wielding nuns – and the more singing and dancing “penguins” the better. The national tour of "Sister Act," which rolled into Motown's Fisher Theatre last night, proves the formula still works. The five-time Tony nominated musical is based on the film of the same name that starred Whoopi Goldberg, and Ms. Goldberg is actually the producer of this production – along with Stage Entertainment and Troika Entertainment.
As with the film, this is the story of a singer (Deloris) who witnesses a murder and must be hidden away at the local inner-city convent for her own protection until she can testify at the trial. While hiding out with the good nuns, Deloris takes on the persona and habit of “Sister Mary Clarence” and breathes some new life into the moribund convent choir.
Unlike the film, this musical features an original score by a true Broadway superstar – multi-Academy, Grammy and Golden Globe Award-winning composer Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Enchanted”), with brilliant lyrics by Tony and Academy Award-nominee Glenn Slater (“The Little Mermaid”). Set in the late ‘70s, the show is an homage to disco-era fantasies – resplendent in allusions to Donna Summers, white three-piece suits, glittery disco balls, and more than a few numbers that sound suspiciously like Abba by way of “Mamma Mia!”
“Sister Act” is great fun and family-friendly in the best sense – which is to say, there are no obvious naughty parts, but the clever lyrics are devised to give attentive adults in the audience a good chuckle. As you’d expect, the cast is packed with great voices. Singing the lead is Ta’rea Campbell as Deloris, who earned her Broadway stripes as Nala in “The Lion King” as well as performing with the original casts of “Leap of Faith” and “The Book of Mormon.” Her rich, rangy musical style is contrasted with the more precisely voiced, disciplined character of Mother Superior, performed by Hollis Resnik. And the role of Officer Eddie Souther – the cop who has had a crush on Deloris since high school – is sung in this production by Chester Gregory, who returns to the role he created for the original Broadway production. Whether crooning in the upper vocal registers that typify the disco sound – or laying it sweet and low like Barry White – Mr. Gregory has the pipes to make it work.
Everything about this show is calculated to deliver a fun night of theatre. Set in an inner city cathedral, Klara Zieglerova’s set design evolves over the course of the show, so that we actually witness the restoration work that becomes possible as the church choir wins new fans and donors. Stained glass windows are replaced. New pipes for the organ appear. And even the giant upstage stage statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary gets a major makeover. And although the focus of this musical is clearly on the singing, the production features cheerfully churchy choreography by Tony and Olivier Award nominee Anthony Van Laast (“Mamma Mia,” “Bombay Dreams.”) And eventually, even the strict nuns kick the habit – and everyone gets a sparkly disco costume designed by Lez Brotherston.
Serious theater? Thank heaven, no one pretends it is. But there is a simple message behind all the music and mayhem – and it has everything to do with knowing who you are and standing strong with the people you love best. Deloris discovers that her convent friends are “sisters” in every sense of the word, and that's something worth singing about.
You can catch this Broadway In Detroit limited engagement at the Fisher Theatre through May 4, 2014. Tickets are available at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online or at the Fisher Theatre box office. Performance times are: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.; Sunday evening performances at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m., there is a special Open Captioned performance. Tickets start at $40, which includes parking and facility fees.
In addition, Broadway In Detroit and Michigan Education Savings Plan (MESP) present “Sister Act” Kids’ Night on Broadway, with pre-show activities at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23 in the Fisher Theatre lobby. Kids will have the opportunity to make their very own crafts courtesy of Arts & Scraps, interact with cast members, sample free ice cream from Treat Dreams while supplies last, and much more. For Kids’ Night, with the purchase of every adult ticket, families will receive one kids’ ticket free (18 and under) on select seat locations. For details and to purchase tickets online, visit the Broadway in Detroit Kids' Night website.