by Adam Cohen . . .
Sister Act is musical theater comfort food. It makes no intellectual demands. The songs are eminently hummable. The performances are often perfection. And the plot is markedly inane: When mobbed-up nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier accidentally stumbles onto a murder scene, she’s forced to hide in a struggling Philadelphia convent. Shenanigans ensue.
Sister Act hinges on questions with obvious audience-pleasing answers: Can Deloris (Nicole Vanessa Ortiz) turn a bevy of tone-deaf nuns into a supergroup? Will the nuns pack the pews enough to save their church from being sold? Will the endlessly disapproving Mother Superior (Jennifer Allen) come to appreciate Deloris’ flash? Will the nuns zhuzh up their habits by covering them in sparkles? How many jokes about religion can one show stomach?
Alan Menken’s score draws on the sacred and the profane, moving from hymn to hedonism without missing a beat, layering in 1970s Philadelphia soul – where the show is set. The songs aren’t complicated, but music director Christopher Babbage has the cast taking that simplicity and rendering it showstopping. Book writers Bill and Cheri Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane layer the space between the music with enough humor and a bit of pathos.
As Deloris, Ortiz is a welcome eager presence. She owns the stage from the opening number through the finale. Her nightclub bangers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby” are star turns, and her earnest delivery of the 11th-hour title tune is a moving, believable ode to female friendship.
Allen makes an adequate foil as an old-school Mother Superior who sees cheesesteak as a step away from Sodom and Gomorrah levels of debauchery. She has a wonderful turn of motherly protectionism in Act 2’s “Here Within These Walls.”
The gangster trio (Ryan Gregory Thurman, Todd A. Horman, and Anthony Alfaro) featured in “Lady in the Long Black Dress” delivers Barry White-smooth vocals paired with foxy moves (excellent work by choreographer Anthony Van Laast) worthy of 1970s “Soul Train.” They bring real comic relief from the wealth of the book’s religious jokes. Akron Watson serves appropriate menace to his gangster role of Curtis, especially in his number “When I Find My Baby.”
Jarran Muse counters Akron’s fierceness as Eddie the detective. Muse’s “I Could Be That Guy” will tug on your heartstrings with its sweetness while simultaneously knocking your socks off with timeless, groovy moves.
There are also not one but two marvelous costume reveals, courtesy of Lez Brotherston’s tearaway costume creations. Brotherston appropriately glitz’s up the habits. Klara Zieglerova’s set design crafts a neat touch of the immense beauty of the fading church, especially in the detailed stain glass which are warmly lit by Charlie Morrison’s lighting.
Belinda Allyn serves as the heart of the show. Her Sister Mary Robert is a tautly rendered journey of growth that blossoms lovely. Her “The Life I Never Led” is poignant and full of contemplative courage. It’s a lovely performance with nuance and well worth the price of admission.
The actors immense joy, funk and spirit raise the roof of the Paper Mill Playhouse. That’s all the show needs. Amen to “Sister Act” at the Paper Mill’s engaging family entertainment.
Tickets and more information at papermill.org Sister Act runs thru June 26.
Lead Photo: Cast by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade