Sister Act, the musical based on the 1992 movie, opened in Toronto as part of a national tour following its Broadway run. It's a fun-filled spectacle that cleverly riffs on classic dance tunes while keeping the mood light-hearted.
That doesn't mean I knew what to expect walking in to the Mirvish Theatre one evening recently. I never saw Sister Act, the movie, and had few expectations in attending a musical based around it. The only exposure I really had -if it counts -was numerous afternoons and evenings spent weaving around the gawking tourists who lined 53rd and 7th in New York, lined up for matinee or evening performances when the musical played on Broadway. I used to wonder what they were all waiting for. A bunch of singing nuns? Huh. See The Sound Of Music. Why would anyone waste their time with something so derivative as a musical based around a movie that was never a musical in the first place?
Then I experienced the musical for myself. Currently playing Toronto (to November 4th) as part of a touring production that sees it visiting in a number of spots across North America (the Broadway show closed this past August), the show is a light, fun, rather silly tale with some memorable tunes and beautiful costumes. Deloris Van Cartier (played by Ta'Rea Campbell in the show, and Whoopi Goldberg in the film, who also serves as one of the musical's producer) witnesses her gangster boyfriend bump off a squelcher, and goes into hiding in a convent, where she clashes with Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) but goes on to lead the choir to incredible effect. The setting and action have been moved, from what I can gather, from 1990s San Francisco to 1970s Philadelphia. Why? I'm not sure. Sister Act isn't attempting to provide any thoughtful commentary about the state of race relations or police brutality or gangland warfare in urban America; there's a sense that, no matter how dark the potential for violence here, no one ever really gets hurt (badly), and few ever meet much of a bad end. in other words, Sister Act is solid fun, very safe, and yes, good family entertainment. There is a discernible cartoonishness to the proceedings, as well as a girl power-y "sisters are doing it for themselves" vibe. All in all, good clean fun, despite Deloris' rough nightclub background, shady associations, and her so-called "F.M." boots.
And what boots they are; the long, purple, super-heeled wonders reflect a gorgeous visual sense that pervades the show. So perhaps the setting and time frame were adjusted from the film in order to allow for a fabulous design scheme? Perhaps. Jumpsuits, halter tops, big earrings, bell bottoms, big-collared shirts, loud colors and sequins: Sister Act gleefully rips your retinas out with its flashy, trashy look. Kudos to costume designer Lez Brotherston, and scenic designer Klara Zieglerova too -never before has a Catholic church looked so brilliant, sparkly Madonna statue included.
The cast of Sister Act offer a high-energy, joy-filled performance, and are assisted by great design, along with disco-inspired choreography by Anthony Van Laast.
The gorgeously gaudy design, energetic choreography, and catchy music complement each other beautifully, with the latter offering at toe-tapping combination of soul, ballads, gospel, funk, and dance. Composed by none other than multi-award-winning composer Alan Menken, the audience is offered a clever play on 1970s hits in all its funky glory. Numbers frequently vibe on bands from the era, offering something for both older and younger audience members. For instance, bad guy Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs)'s tune "When I Find My Baby" casually, cleverly riffs on Issac Hayes, The Isley Brothers and The Temptations with its smooth soul-dance harmonies; similarly, "Lady In The Long Black Dress" is an hilariously sly take on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack performed by Jackson's gang, a trio of bumblers dressed (and singing) like The Bee Gees (though perhaps closer to the Three Stooges -a tricky mix well-done). Sister Act doesn't so much mock the 1970s setting (and indeed, the music) as it does celebrate and relish the time period, making for a loving tribute amidst the silly story and occasionally wan writing.
So while the ending smacks a bit too much of the saccharine by the end (I always hate clap-and-sing-alongs; they seem like a cop-out for providing a proper resolution), there remains a nice haze of feel-good vibes walking out of the newly-renamed Mirvish Theatre. You'll want to ask for a cheese steak in the diner down the street, wearing your best FM boots and singing "Take Me To Heaven." Sister Act doesn't exactly send you all the way there, but you sure get close, and you'll feel fabulous trying.