Sister Act: Theater Review

Patina Miller in "Sister Act"
Whoopi Goldberg's absence is felt, but this bouncy musical eventually gets into the habit in a good way.

The Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical takes two acts to establish an identity distinct from the 1992 film of the same name.

NEW YORK – Lead producer Whoopi Goldberg is the name above the title of Sister Act. This enjoyable family-friendly musical adaptation's biggest draw is the brand she was instrumental in forging in the 1992 Touchstone movie and its sequel. But paradoxically, Goldberg is also a handicap here, demonstrating that hers are tough shoes to fill in a comedy.

That's not to say Patina Miller doesn't deliver in the role of Deloris Van Cartier, the ghetto-fabulous nightclub singer who witnesses a murder and goes into hiding in a convent. She has a winning presence, but her comic chops are not quite equal to her powerhouse vocals or knockout looks. And even in costumer Lez Brotherston's trashy-flashy purple suede thigh boots and hot pants, Miller suggests class more than sass or brass, components that were woven into Goldberg's indelible imprint on the role.

That makes this Sister Act a process of adjustment for anyone familiar with the material. Despite some strong numbers, it takes Miller most of the patchy first act to seize ownership of the role, which she eventually does. In the more assured second act, the musical catches fire, establishing a fresh identity distinct from that of the movie.

The creative team has bumped the story back in time, shifting the action from present-day Reno/San Francisco to 1970s Philadelphia. And while Goldberg's Deloris favored Motown, Miller's is all about that sweet Philly soul sound, with a dose of disco.

Composer Alan Menken teams again with lyricist Glenn Slater (his collaborator on the stage version of The Little Mermaid) to cook up a tuneful original score of lush funk grooves, entrusted to a cast of strong singers. The male roles are expanded via songs that evoke The O'Jays, The Spinners, The Stylistics and Lou Rawls, while the girls channel The Three Degrees, Patti LaBelle and -- stepping beyond Philly city limits in style -- Donna Summer. Doug Besterman's orchestrations time-travel amusingly back to the period, while choreographer Anthony Van Laast's Soul Train-meets-hip-hop moves are a little more lax about the '70s mandate.

The show follows the basic template of Joseph Howard's screenplay. After walking in on her married lover Curtis (Kingsley Leggs) as he ices one of his goons, Deloris seeks protection from cop Eddie Souther (Chester Gregory). The new development here is that Eddie has had a crush on her since high school, opening the door to romance. Against the objections of the Mother Superior (Victoria Clark), Deloris is tucked away at the Queen of Angels convent and cathedral, going incognito as Sister Mary Clarence.

When Sister MC proves hard to tame, Mother Superior sticks her out of the way in the tone-deaf choir. But her musicianship makes her a natural leader. She brings harmony to the group as she releases the songbirds trapped inside them, and puts butts on the seats of a church threatened with closure.

Premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006, the show has undergone major surgery since its 2009 London run. Aside from Miller, the cast is mostly new. Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks replaces original director (and former Disney animation president) Peter Schneider, while writer Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu, The Little Dog Laughed) has come on board to punch up Cheri and Bill Steinkellner's book. The signatures of both new additions are evident and welcome, particularly Zaks' flair for staging accelerated action as gangsters close in for the climactic face-off, and Beane's sure aim with a comic zinger.

Unlike the movie, in which Deloris nudged the cloistered nuns out into the community to do good, here she merely transforms them into booty-shaking divas. Ostensibly, they're raising their voices to God, but they're really just discovering the rush of performing. That shift is countered, however, by enrichment of the clash of wills between Deloris and the Mother Superior, and the mutual lessons they learn. This agenda is boosted by refined work from Clark (a Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza), who gets Menken's more traditional show tunes.

Like another new musical this season, Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act misses opportunities to bring the audience closer to its central character. A moment soon after Deloris' arrival at the convent to a chilly welcome from Mother Superior cries out for a "who-am-I-and-where-is-my-life-going?" song.

Also notably absent is a bonding number for Deloris and her cohorts, meek novitiate Mary Robert (Marla Mindelle), chirpy, zaftig Mary Patrick (Sarah Bolt) and acerbic crone Mary Lazarus (Audrie Neenan). This should have gone more or less where the movie's ice-cream scene was. While it's admirable that the writers didn't want to carbon-copy the movie, they shortchange the show on heart.

But despite some missteps, Sister Act comes together to provide payoff in laughs, emotional uplift and spectacle. Who doesn't want to see nuns in silver-sequined habits boogie down while a giant Virgin Mary statue subs for a disco ball, and a wall of stained-glass church windows pulses like a multicolored dance floor?

In the end, these brides of Christ are not so different from the spotlight-loving drag queens a few blocks away in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. And for audiences seeking entertainment without penance, that's probably no bad thing.

Venue: Broadway Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Patina Miller, Victoria Clark, Fred Applegate, Sarah Bolt, John Treacy Egan, Demond Green, Chester Gregory, Kingsley Leggs, Marla Mindelle, Audrie Neenan, Caesar Samayoa
Director: Jerry Zaks
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Book: Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner, with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane, based on the Touchstone Pictures film written by Joseph Howard
Set designer: Klara Zieglerova
Costume designer: Lez Brotherston
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: John Shivers
Choreographer: Anthony Van Laast
Music supervisor, vocal and incidental music arrangements: Michael Kosarin
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Music director: Brent-Alan Huffman
Producers: Whoopi Goldberg, Joop Van Den Ende, Bill Taylor, Rebecca Quigley
Presented by Whoopi Goldberg, Stage Entertainment, in association with the Shubert Organization, Disney Theatrical Productions