The merchandise stand is selling, amongst other items, the DVDs of the 1992 film Sister Act and its 1993 sequel Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, but don’t expect to hear any of the songs from the films in the musical adaptation. With a relocation of the narrative from San Francisco, CA to Philadelphia, PA, a distance of 2,876 miles, thrown in, this production was supposed to feature Whoopi Goldberg – though filming schedules and other commitments meant it didn’t quite work in the end. Instead, London audiences (who had a limited opportunity to see Goldberg, as Mother Superior, back in 2010 when the original London production ran at the Palladium) are treated to the very talented and capable Beverley Knight as Deloris Van Cartier, an up-and-coming singer in the late 1970s.
You are, I suspect, familiar with the story, but just in case: Deloris sees a murder committed by her boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Jeremy Secomb). She goes to the police – there’s a rather inventive scene involving a pedicab (that is, pedal-powered rickshaws), as Deloris’ efforts to hail a proper taxi are in vain and she really must get to a police station at once. She is willing to testify but this means entering a witness protection programme, and so Eddie Souther (Clive Rowe), a police lieutenant, arranges to have her sent to Our Lady in Perpetual Sorrow, a convent: it is, he has reason to believe, a very unlikely place for Curtis to visit in his attempts to track her down.
The problem is that she can’t simply stay there on an ‘as is’ basis: as the Mother Superior (Jennifer Saunders) points out, it’s not a hotel, and she must therefore abide by the many rules of the convent. I’ve never seen Saunders in a musical before, and her comic timing goes well with Knight’s sheer vocal power, with the latter being especially engaging in her (quelle surprise, successful) attempts to encourage the nuns to channel their religious fervour into their singing rather than nonchalantly continue warbling tunelessly. Another problem: ‘It’s Good To Be A Nun’, being a musical number, comes before any of this happens, such that the nuns prove to Deloris, each other and the audience, that they can all sing very well, even before any vocal exercises and techniques are introduced.
I suppose narrative points of this nature are largely forgotten, or forgiven, or both, in a show that has such a strong feelgood factor it is difficult not to acknowledge that it’s the right sort of production for the difficult and troubling times in which we live. The choreography (Alistair David) places a necessary emphasis on upper body movement, on account of the sisters in the holy order wearing nun habits. There is therefore, in this show, no such thing as “too much armography”, to quote BBC Television’s Strictly Come Dancing, even if all that hand raising makes the choir look more Pentecostal than Catholic.
The supporting roles are quite superb – Lizzie Bea’s Sister Mary Robert has a predictable storyline as the character who starts out by interpreting Mother Superior’s call for humility to mean timidity but ends up being one of the loudest voices in the choir. Lesley Joseph’s Sister Mary Lazarus receives some hearty applause for delivering “the funky bits” with considerable aplomb. Keala Settle as Sister Mary Patrick puts her commanding vocals to excellent use. Rowe’s Eddie, nicknamed Steady Eddie rather than the Sweaty Eddie of the London Palladium production gets the best costume change of the evening during ‘I Could Be That Guy’, on a par with Elsa in Disney’s Frozen the Musical during ‘Let It Go’.
The sound balance wasn’t entirely perfect from my vantage point, and there were a few lyrics that I couldn’t quite make out. With some shows that is unimportant, but in this one, the musical numbers drive the story forward more often than they don’t. With an important message to engage with those with whom we don’t necessarily agree, this is a lively and spirited production that is indeed “so damn fabulous, baby”.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Brace yourselves sisters for this sparkling celebration of the universal power of friendship, sisterhood and music.
Sister Act tells the hilarious story of Deloris whose life takes a surprising turn when she witnesses a murder. Under protective custody she is hidden in the one place she won’t be found – a convent! Disguised as a nun and under the suspicious watch of Mother Superior, Deloris helps her fellow sisters find their voices as she unexpectedly rediscovers her own.
Joining the congregation as Mother Superior is comedy legend and BAFTA Award-winner Jennifer Saunders, and the Queen of Soul, Beverley Knight as Disco diva in disguise Deloris Van Cartier. The heavenly cast also includes The Greatest Showman and Tony Award-nominated actress Keala Settle, Television and stage star Lesley Joseph, Hackney royalty and Olivier Award-winner Clive Rowe and Hairspray’s rising star Lizzie Bea.
Featuring original music by Tony® and 8-time Oscar® winner Alan Menken (Disney’s Aladdin, Enchanted), dazzling dance routines and songs inspired by Motown, soul and disco, this is one nostalgia-filled trip that you will never forget.
Eventim Apollo, London
2 Queen Caroline Street London W6 9QH