SINGING NUNS Bagel, Van Keuren, and Campbell. [Photo by Joan Marcus]
For all the fun we had along with Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Sister Act, the musical version is a delight all its own, as the show touring through Providence Performing Arts Center is demonstrating (through April 14).
And for those loyal to the screen version, the adaptation does more than stick in 14 songs. The story is the familiar one, with all the main characters and relationships, but the dialogue is all its own, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner.
It's the adventure of a spunky black singer who goes by the name Deloris Van Cartier (Ta'rea Campbell), since Doris Carter doesn't sound like the star she aspires to become. When we first meet her, she's the girlfriend of a gangster, Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs), and her delight in getting a gaudy fur coat from him as a Christmas present is crushed by learning it belongs to his wife. Her romantic relationship ends abruptly when she walks into a room just as he shoots an underling who had been seen talking to the police. She flees the likely prospect of more gunfire.
At the police station she is taken under wing by Eddie (E. Clayton Cornelius), a friend from high school, known all his life as Sweaty Eddie, which predictably provides a later sight gag. Deloris has to hide out until she can testify at a trial, which won't take place for at least a month. "You mean I got to go incog-negro?" she asks.
Yup. She is taken to a nearby convent, where the Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) is understandably dubious of this sparkly sequined creature with the big purple purse. Asked if she prays, Deloris recalls her jealousy of Donna Summer, back when she blurted: "Jesus Christ, I wish I had that dress." The banter stays cute. "Is there a smoking section?" she asks, to which her new boss replies, "Yes, dear, and you're heading for it."
Her fellow sisters are a diverse lot. Prominent among them are the hyper-perky Sister Mary Patrick (Florrie Bagel) and the super-shy Sister Mary Robert (Lael Van Keuren). The newly named Sister Mary Clarence lures them out to a sleazy bar, but she and her new friends don't have much time to relax. She is recognized by the thugs who are searching for her and escapes when a fight breaks out.
Deloris proves herself, of course, by shaping up the sisters into a convent choir worthy of singing for the visiting Pope. Campbell proves herself to be an equally formidable force belting out her numbers, just as the other main actors do well strutting their comical stuff. Anyone in the audience who thinks shy Sister Mary Robert won't eventually grow confident, for example, hasn't been paying attention.
The songs vary in catchiness and ability to propel the story. Early on, "It's Good To Be a Nun" has some spirit, but it's not until the convent chorus gets its rafter-rattling act together toward the end of Act One and into Act Two that Sister Act really gets going as a musical. The rollicking ensemble version of "Take Me To Heaven" works better than when Deloris solos with it in the first scene. And the gospel-inspired rousers "Raise Your Voice" and "Sunday Morning Fever" pump up the energy. Even Sweaty Eddie gets a song ("I Could Be That Guy"), but only when the tempo rises does it and he come alive.