Original songs make ‘Sister Act’ worth catching

CLEVELAND – The movie “Sister Act” was a surprise, feel-good hit in 1992.

Whoopi Goldberg parlayed her Oscar-winning supporting role in “Ghost” into her most-successful top-billed film. It creatively reinterpreted pop hits to have a spiritual bent, and it exploited the long-held belief that women in habits are funny.

Considering Broadway’s movie remaking frenzy, the only surprise is that it took nearly 20 years for “Sister Act” to make it to the stage. The 2011 stage version picked up five Tony Award nominations and lasted 17 months on Broadway, but it wasn’t the sure-fire hit that it seemed to be on paper.

While no one would describe the film as complex or sophisticated, the stage version is kind of a dumbed down version of the movie. The story has been pared away simply to provide a few easy laughs between the engaging musical numbers. If that’s all audiences expect, this touring production should satisfy.

There are some changes, most notably setting the tale in 1977-78, but the gist remains the same. Deloris (Ta’Rea Campbell) is a struggling lounge singer with a crime boss (Kingsley Leggs) for a boyfriend. When she witnesses him murdering a colleague, she goes to the police. And the cop (E. Clayton Cornelious), who had a crush on Deloris in high school, sends her to the last place anyone would think to look for her – a convent. Her smoking and drinking ways clash with the strict Mother Superior (Euclid native Hollis Resnik), but her musical talents enliven the church choir, bringing needed cash to a church in danger of closing but also bringing the kind of attention that someone in protective custody should avoid.

Instead of being a jukebox musical putting a gospel spin on pop hits like the movie, “Sister Act” features an original score with music by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and lyrics by Glenn Slater (who also collaborated with Menken on the stage version of “Mermaid” and the flop “Leap of Faith”). The composers draw on the late ’70s setting for musical inspiration, mixing some Philly soul and disco influences into the songs (although they also have a rapping nun a year before Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”).

“When I Find My Baby” was a first act standout, with Leggs and his henchmen performing a song that could be mistaken for The Stylistics or The O’Jays if they weren’t singing about stabbing, shooting and disemboweling the baby in the title. Those henchmen (played by Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda and Charles Barksdale) get one of the funniest second act numbers as the sing about their skills in wooing the ladies on “Lady in the Long Black Dress.”

But “Sister Act” really comes to life when Deloris is working with the nuns as Campbell’s vocals soar while leading an equally talented chorus on “Raise Your Voice,” “Take Me to Heaven,” “Sunday Morning Fever” and the finale “Spread the Love Around.” And Lael Van Keuren as Sister Mary Robert shines in the second-act number “The Life I Never Led.”

They don’t appear to have skimped on the sets for the tour. The church scenes are particularly lavish with a gigantic Virgin Mary looming in the background (that same statue gets a sparkly second-act makeover). But unlike many contemporary musicals, it’s also easy to imagine the show working in a more stripped down format. Don’t be surprised if many community theaters start scrambling to add it to their schedules when it becomes available.

“Sister Act” isn’t a great musical, but enough elements are here to make it an entertaining one.

“Sister Act” runs through March 17 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $10 to $75 and are available at www.playhousesquare.org and by calling 216-241-6000.