Habit Forming

Sister Act is back again and the sass is mostly first class

If you're looking to hide out from some gangsters by going somewhere nobody will ever see you, and you can't get cast in the next Piranha 3D movie sequel, you may want to consider getting thyself to a nunnery.

That's how aspiring lounge singer and murder witness Deloris Van Cartier dodges the no-necks in Sister Act, the disco-drenched musical now at PlayhouseSquare. Written and directed by a stable of genuine pros (Alan Menken on music, Glenn Slater on lyrics, Jerry Zaks directing), it's a slick and satisfying Broadway song-a-thon.

And it's so tightly packaged you never even have to nudge a brain cell to follow the proceedings. Set in Philly in 1978, Cartier accidentally spots her boyfriend Curtis Jackson offing a suspected snitch, so she winds up squirreled away in a bankrupt convent led by an acerbic Mother Superior.

Of course, the convent's nun choir is an atonal disaster until Deloris takes the reins. She turns the black-and-whites into a multi-colored disco sound machine, with touches of Motown and funkadelic accents. This transformation fills the pews and saves the convent from being sold off to (gasp!) a couple of unseen gay real estate sharks.

With an assist from Douglas Carter Beane, the Cheri and Bill Steinkellner book skips past a lot of the heart that was evident in the Whoopi Goldberg movie from which it is adapted. But it replaces genuine feeling with relentless Broadway musical manipulation. And it works so well that you almost don't notice the lack of character development or sensible plot threads.

In the lead role of Deloris, Ta'rea Campbell has pipes that don't quit, blazing hot riffs on the title song and many others. But when not singing, Campbell never generates the mixture of outrageousness and quiet compassion that could make this sassy songstress truly engaging. In short, the "Whoopi factor" is missing.

Hollis Resnick, who has acted at the Cleveland Play House, plays the Mother Superior with the right gloss of religious rectitude. And she delivers on her solo, "Haven't Got a Prayer," with conviction.

There are several musical highlights, aside from Campell's pyrotechnics. Lael Van Keuren is the slender and humble postulant, Mary Robert, who trails after everybody until, in the second act, she stops the show with "The Life I Never Led." How such big sounds come out of that petite person is a wonder.

And even the henchmen have their own star vehicle. Three of Curtis's muscle heads try to figure out how to gain entrance to the convent by coming on to the nuns in their amorous "Lady in the Long Black Dress." They each carve out a distinctive musical personality, especially Todd A. Horman, whose Joey goes all gooey ("Picture you and me one sweet night/In a pool of votive candlelight").

As for their boss, Kingsley Leggs doesn't quite make Curtis the fearsome presence he should be, even though he glowers and grimaces in all the right places. But Charles Barksdale has fun with his role as TJ, the roly-poly nephew of Curtis, a gangster who seems more intent on having fun than making his bones.

The production benefits from a solid orchestra featuring more than a dozen touring musicians and a conductor who, at one point, doubles as the Pope.

But the sets are something of a disappointment, often relying on painted scrims to convey the majesty of the gothic environs. Seems like a more three-dimensional set might have been called for in a play that takes place mostly in what appears to be a soaring cathedral.

Once you ignore the fact that a couple of the nuns talk more like Sid Caesar's comedy writers than brides of Christ (notes one, "My life is like the Stations of the Cross, without the laughs."), you just give in to the music and the voices. And that's a blessing.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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