If tired clichés and humorless stereotypes are your thing, check out the musical Sister Act at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre.
The story in the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg is predictable, and this stage version’s tale is even weaker. The movie, set in a faded casino in Reno, Nevada, and a dying convent in San Francisco, has now been transplanted to Philadelphia.
The movie was set in the ’90s, while the stage adaptation, produced by Goldberg and others, takes place in 1977 in an attempt to give the musical more of a disco feel along with its funk and gospel sounds. For the musical, Alan Menken of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast fame created all original music in the vein of the ’70s, much of it not too memorable. The movie featured real-life Motown, R&B and pop hits such as My Guy, Rescue Me and Shout.
In this story, disco singer and aspiring star Deloris witnesses a crime committed by her thug boyfriend and must go into protective custody — in a convent, of all places. Disguised as a nun, she clashes with the stringent Mother Superior but ends up winning the hearts of all the nuns while helping them find their voices through song.
Eliminating the casino element of the story and placing the crime in a nightclub cuts out the movie’s element of seedy mob crime and makes the tale weaker. In the stage version, instead of Deloris being a has-been lounge singer, she’s a young hopeful trying to get a break.
Leading lady Ta’Rea Campbell is fresh-faced with a much more innocent persona than Goldberg’s Deloris in the beginning. That’s a problem because Deloris is supposed to be a worldly character who’s immediately at odds with the nuns’ lifestyle.
Campbell’s characterization is inconsistent — sweet and sunny at the show’s beginning but then becoming suddenly nasty when she reaches the convent. There’s nothing jaded about her portrayal.
Despite her flawed role, Campbell has a powerful singing voice, inducing tingles in Raise Your Voice and her sexy, early version of Take Me to Heaven.
Nuns seem to provide endless fodder for poking fun at in the entertainment world, especially in this musical, which portrays them as clueless creatures doddering around like penguins. This attempted humor would work if it were completely over-the-top, but here, it lacks both wit and smarts.
Each of the nuns represents a big stereotype, except for Mother Superior, who’s played with elegance and great depth of feeling by Cleveland native Hollis Resnik. She’s the only one to imbue a nun character with true humanity.
Resnik, who appeared as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire seven years ago at Cleveland Play House, is a remarkable acting and vocal talent. The Mother Superior bemoans how a glitzy star has taken over her convent in Haven’t Got a Prayer.
The rest of the nun cast is daffy. Some are cute, but the funniest is Diane Findlay as the old, crusty Mary Lazarus.
As an ensemble, their voices are excellent. Too bad this is the kind of lyric they have to work with in the ridiculous It’s Good to Be a Nun: “I love the sweet sensation of extreme self-flagellation.’’
Lyricist Glenn Slater focuses heavily on the element of titillation in several nuns’ songs, including taking the sex-themed lyrics from Take Me to Heaven and turning them into a song addressed to Jesus.
Klara Zieglerova’s church set is beautiful, evoking a perspective of depth in its gothic arches. But Catholics in the audience are sure to cringe at a huge statue of Mary that’s totally blinged out for a choir performance for the pope, and when the priest, Monsignor O’Hara, becomes a Barry White-style MC during Mass.
The villains are buffoons who sing backup to Kingsley Leggs’ Curtis in When I Find My Baby, vowing to disembowel Deloris when they find her. They also fantasize about having the prowess to seduce a nun.
Deloris, who goes through much of this tale acting as if she’s superior to the nuns, has a sudden conversion very late in the show.
I wasn’t buying it. But the crowd in the Palace Theatre, which gave Sister Act a standing ovation, certainly was.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.