Entertainment » Theatre

Sister Act

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Monday May 2, 2011
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  (Source:Joan Marcus)

The New York Times just ran a long article suggesting that sugar is toxic. Written by a scientist for the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Foundation, the piece suggested that sugar may be a major cause of both adult-onset diabetes and cancer.

If that’s true, I’d suggest you avoid the Broadway Theater. After all, that’s where the new musical version of the 1992 movie "Sister Act" is playing. The amount of treacle in the show exceeds the quantity of manna provided to the ancient Israelites during their sojourn in the desert.

If, however, you’re not fearful of the risks of suffering a diabetic coma from consuming a heaping portion of sweetener, you’re more than likely to enjoy yourself. I, for one, found it to be very tasty.

Simply put: if the ’rents are in town, you have to take them to a show and they’ve already seen (or you can’t get tickets to) "The Lion King" or "Mamma Mia," go for "Sister Act." Don’t expect a work of art - or anything like it. Do anticipate lots of great singing and dancing and skillfully manipulative, crowd-pleasing popular entertainment. If you can handle that, you’ll have a lot of fun.

While the level of truthfulness in the show is on the Richard Nixon level, the talent of the cast, the proficiency of director Jerry Zaks’ staging and the tunefulness of Alan Menken’s ("Beauty and the Beast" and "Little Shop of Horrors") synthetic score are abundant compensations. There’s a lot to like.

The amount of treacle in the show exceeds the quantity provided to the ancient Israelites during their sojourn in the desert.

To start with the cast, well, it’s absolutely superlative. Among the special standouts is newcomer Patina Miller, playing the Whoopi Goldberg part of Deloris Van Cartier, the would-be pop diva forced to hide in a convent while awaiting a trial in which she is to testify against her married hoodlum ex-boyfriend who has murdered a police informant. Miller has pipes, presence and a shapely figure she’s not ashamed to flaunt. She also effectively plays straight to Broadway vet Victoria Clark, well-cast in the part of the acidulous but ultimately warm-hearted Mother Superior who takes her in.

The improbably named Kingsley Leggs, in the part of Miller’s sometime steady, is equally excellent: charismatic and sweet-voiced, he’s alternately menacing, smooth and charming.

The main changes from the movie to the musical revolve around time and place. The show has been re-set from Reno and San Francisco in the early 1990’s to Philadelphia in the 1970’s. This permits Menken to artfully parody -- and offer blessed homage -- to disco and soul songs of the era. For this reason, the murderous ex who was Italian and played by Harvey Keitel in the movie, is now black.

Not lost from the film, though, is an undercurrent that is wholly catholic and not one whit Catholic. The hugely popular original -- for those who may not recall -- was based on a screenplay by a gay, Jewish author (Paul Rudnick), who had previously penned porn scripts and who was possessed of the notion that the film should provide a vehicle for Bette Midler. Under the aegis of Producer Scott Rudin, it was then substantially re-written by (among others) Carrie Fisher (yes, Princess Leia), Elaine May and Nancy Meyers ("Private Benjamin") for Goldberg.

The current show was re-written by a husband and wife team who worked on "Cheers" and then by Douglas Carter Beane ("The Little Dog Laughed"). The end product is about as Catholic as a strap-on dildo. By the time the curtain comes down, you’ll have seen nuns in habits with rhinestones and spangles and a revolving twelve-foot statue of the Virgin Mary with flashing strobes and disco lights around it.

The audience I saw it with loved it.

Sister Act is at the Broadway Theater at 168a Broadway between West 52nd and West 53rd Streets. For more information visit the Sister Act website.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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