Praise The Lord!

Musicals that are based on movies are a hit or miss thing. There have been some notable successes: Hairspray, The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundels. There have also been some significant flops: Carrie comes to mind. But such transformations are the current “in-thing” on Broadway, so much so that the musical [title of show] makes fun of the fact that it is not a musical based on a previous movie. The upcoming season is going to see a number of such shows hit the stage in New York, from Mary Poppins to Legally Blond. Even more are in the works, including musical versons of Get Shorty and Rocky.

Back in April 2005, Peter Schneider had an idea for such a show: a stage version of the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle “Sister Act“. After a difficult genesis (described in this article), the show emerged as the last presentation in the 2006 Pasadena Playhouse season. I saw it last night.

Wow! Call out the choir and sing it to the rafters, because this show has success written all over it.

For those unfamiliar with the original movie, Sister Act: The Musical (book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, based on the original story by Joseph Howard) tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier (nee Deloris Carter), a 3rd rate lounge singer. One evening at the lounge, in a rage when her boyfriend, the gangster Curtis Shank, fails to give her a ring for her finger, she walks in to see him killing a snitch. Knowing her life is now in danger, she runs to Sgt. Eddie Souther of the Philadelphia PD (who it turns out she knew as “Stinky Eddie” in high school), and he puts her in protective custody. Where? In a 3rd rate convent of course, a convent being kept afloat by the contribution of the PD to the Monsignor. At the convent, Deloris (now Sister Mary Clarence) initially has trouble fitting in to the spartan lifestyle and the nuns who love their calling. But then she is assigned to the choir, and this is God’s miracle. Sister Mary Clarence takes the choir and turns it around to the point where the Pope has to create an audience to get a ticket. This, of course, gets publicity… and with the publicity, Curtis’s goons find her. Pulled out of the safety of the cloister for her safety just before the big show, Deloris has to make the decision: a safe life, or doing what is right by God. I think you can expect the answer.

The show is set in the 1970-1980s, and is filled with high energy music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. From high-energy songs such as “Raise Your Voice”, “Light My Way”, and “Mirror Ball” to softer songs such as “I Could Be That Guy” or “The Life I Never Led”, the score is a treat. Songs even change context: “Take Me to Heaven”, an orgiastic number singing the joys of sex in the lounge because an ode to the Lord when sang from the pews. I can’t wait to get the cast album.

I should note that this is a show in progress. It goes from Pasadena to its co-producing partner in Atlanta GA before hitting Broadway. As such, they are continually fine tuning. As I watched the show, I had only three suggestions (all minor). First, the show needs an overture. The current start, a soft version of “Light My Way”, doesn’t build the energy the way an overture would. Second, the second act number “Sister Act” needs work. It tells a key plot point (about the facade of both Sister Mary Clarence and the Mother Superior), but the music comes across as wrong. Lastly, the show needs a larger stage to fit the appropriate choreography. But these do not detract from the show.

What was the audience reaction? I haven’t seen a Playhouse audience this enthused since… well, I haven’t seen it, and we’ve been coming since 1986! My wife thought the crowd might have been this energetic after “Sisterella“, but I don’t recall that. Perhaps the energy was there for “Fences“, the last Playhouse play. I was unsure about the Playhouse at the beginning of the season: “Diva” was weak, and “As U Lyk It” was abominable. But the remainder of the season has been spectactular, and with “Sister Act” the season has gone out on a high-energy note. This is one remarkable theatre folks; one that certainly rarely gets its due from the awards. The upcoming season at the Playhouse looks like it will continue the spectacular streak.

The cast of Sister Act was remarkable. You can read all of their bios here. Standouts included Dawnn Lewis as Deloris/Sister Mary Clarence; Beth Malone as Sister Mary Robert, Amy K. Murray as Sister Mary Patrick, Audrie Neenan as Sister Mary Lazarus, and David Jennings as Sgt. Eddie Souther. All were remarkable, but I’ll particularly highlight Ms. Malone, who would have been in “The Marvelous Wonderettes which we saw recently (she originated the role of Jean). We missed her there, but I’m glad she was in this, for she did a knockout Sister Mary Robert. Also to be acknowledged is the conductor, Brent-Alan Huffman, who was part of the cast as much as anyone else, with his bobbing head and energy that could be seen from the audience. He even changed costumes during the show.

As for the production team, the show was produced by the Pasadena Playhouse and the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta GA. Music by Alan Menkin. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner. Directed by Peter Schneider. Choreographed by Marguerite Derricks. Music supervision, vocal and incidental music arrangements by Michael Kosarin. Sets by David Potts. Costumes by Garry Lennon. Lights by Donald Holder. Sound by Carl Casella and Domonic Sack. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Music director/conductor Brent-Alan Huffman. Production stage manager Eileen Haggerty.

Sister Act has been extended through December 17, 2006. If you can somehow get a ticket, go see it.

I should note that it is nice to see Los Angeles becoming a place for initiating new musical theatre. We had this back in the 1950s and 1960s with Edwin Lester and the LA Civic Light Opera, but it had died. In the last two years, however, we are having a number of shows that have and should go on to win Tonys: The Drowsy Chaperone, Curtains, and now Sister Act. This is a good thing.

And lastly, the upcoming theatre calendar… Dirk, 11/19 (today) @ 2pm; and A Light in the Piazza, 12/3 @ 2pm; Santaland Diaries/Seasons Greetings, 12/23 @ 8pm …plus I’m still working on tickets for 13 (12/30). I should also note that nsshere will be in a school production of “An Evening of Silverstein” on December 7th and 8th–if you are interested, let me know.