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SISTER ACT entertaining at State Theatre, but . . .

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

There have been lots of plays, movies and musicals about nuns.  Nuns, who are traditionally known as those fearsome enforcers of strict rules, wielding punishing rulers, and giving lesser human beings the evil eye.  The purveyors of such wisdom as “don’t wear patent leather shoes because they reflect up,” “don’t go on a date to a restaurant with white tablecloths because it will remind the boy of bed sheets,” “red clothing incites passion,” and “don’t wear makeup as it entices the devil.”

Lapsed and disobedient Catholics love it when entertainment mocks the nuns…it’s their way of “getting back at those hellions of religious pomposity,” as a believer told me just before the opening curtain of SISTER ACT, A DIVINE MUSICAL COMEDY, which is now playing at the Palace Theatre as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.

If seeing nuns being mocked is your goal in seeing SISTER ACT, you’ll be disappointed, because the sisters in this show, except for the Mother Superior, (and even she comes around), are much more interested in being Vegas show girls than putting the fear of a future in hell in the minds of elementary kids.

Also, if you are going expecting the hilarity of the 1992 film, SISTER ACT, which starred Whoopie Goldberg, who, incidentally, happens to be the producer of the stage version, you are probably going to be disappointed.  You’ll probably smile a lot, but, out and out guffaws are few and far between.

The musical, like the movie, concerns Deloris Van Cartier, a street smart African American singer “wanna be,” who sees Curtis, her boyfriend shoot a man.  She goes to the police, reunites with Sgt. “Sweaty Eddie” Souther, who had a crush on her when they were in high school, who places her in protective custody in a broke, soon to be closed church/convent.  Of course, as is always the case in escapist musicals, she stirs up the cloistered place, makes the quiet nuns into singing rebels, and saves the convent.  There’s even an appearance by the Pope….this is the 60s…they still had an active Pope then!

The book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner.  Never heard of them?  You’ll get your answer why after hearing the weak one-liners, clichés, and observe the poorly fleshed-out story.

All is not lost.  The Motown, funk and soul music by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater is great.  Songs such as “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” “When I Find My Baby,” “Raise Your Voice,” and “Take Me to Heaven,” while not classics, are good Broadway fair. The cast can really sing well.  The choreography is fun.  There are some nice characterizations. And, the last two numbers (“Sister Act” and “Spread the Love Around”) are show stoppers, inspiring the usual Cleveland standing ovation.

SISTER ACT, A DIVINE MUSICAL, opened in 2006 at the Pasadena Playhouse, showcased at the London Palladium in 2009, and came to Broadway in 2011.  The Big Apple reviews were mixed, but positive enough to insure a moderately healthy run and insure a touring version.

One of the major problems with this production is that there isn’t enough “attitude.”  Ta’rea Campbell, who sings well, just doesn’t display the street smarts to make Deloris real (i.e., the thrusting jaw and hip, the finger snaps, the rough around the edges sound).  The plot isn’t helped by the fact that the four so-called hoodlums sound like college grads.  We need some in-your-face mobsters (“gangstas”) and their “don’t mess with me” girl friend, to make this ridiculousness work. Whoopie and her tough guys had it in the movie, Ta’rea and her guys don’t.

The nuns are excellent, especially Lael Van Keuren, as the novice who matures before our eyes.  Her “The Life I Never Lived,” is the show’s most plaintive song.  Florrie Bagel is adorable as the unbridled Sister Mary Patrick.  Diana Findlay adds just the right amount of sarcasm to make her Sister Mary Lazarus fun.  Hollis Resnik is superb as Mother Superior….great voice and acting chops!  E. Clayton Cornelius is fine as Sweaty Eddie.

The sets are adequate.  The orchestra is a little light on instruments, leaving a slight hollow sound in the big number songs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  SISTER ACT is not a great musical, but it makes for a generally entertaining evening.  It’s the kind of cotton candy, that, with an  attitude-filled production, could have been total fun.

Tickets for SISTER ACT, which runs through March 17, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to