“Sister Act”: Nuns just want to have fun

October 31, 2013

By the numbers — and that’s the only way, really, to understand the rationale for “Sister Act,” the musical — the lay of the entertainment land would be welcoming to a stage version of the 1992 film comedy that starred Whoopi Goldberg as a singer who puts on a habit to hide from a bunch of thugs.

That number is 231 million, which is the total dollar amount the movie raked in, worldwide. In what passes for Broadway producing these days, that kind of proven bankability is all the artistic motivation required. And that has led, almost inevitably, to exactly the type of lame, dull, superficially flashy spectacle that has arrived via bus and truck on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House.

As fate would have it, the producers didn’t get all that much bang for their buck on Broadway, where “Sister Act” endured for only 17 months and 561 performances — a mere batting of an eyelash in big-budget musical theater terms. But the stay was long enough for the show, with its personality-starved score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater and book by Cheri and Bill Steinkeller laden with recycled nun jokes, to earn the show-business cred that makes such lightweight fare palatable to an institution as esteemed as the Kennedy Center.

Feel free to empty your wallets into this cynical endeavor, but please don’t be lulled into the impression that what you’re getting is commensurately gold-plated musical comedy. The metal that comes to mind here is far from precious — more like tin.

Under Jerry Zaks’s mechanical direction, the musical faithfully regurgitates the movie, which benefited greatly from the presence of Maggie Smith as the starchy Mother Superior who chafes at having murder witness Deloris Van Cartier, played by Goldberg, stashed in her convent. Here, the adversaries are Hollis Resnik as the frowning head of the order and Ta’rea Campbell as attitude-y, rabble-rousing Deloris. They follow the playbook with the necessary professionalism, which is to say that their work hews to a checklist of predictable plot and emotional points.

The purported yuks come from an endless series of unfunny cracks about religious life, the kind that find riotous the idea of nuns letting off steam, just like actual, breathing people: “My life has been like the stations of the cross, but without the laughs.” That sort of thing. Characters such as Chester Gregory’s “Sweaty Eddie” Souther, the anxiety-ridden Philadelphia cop who is in love with Deloris, are reduced to one-joke caricatures. Be prepared to erupt raucously at the sight of the pit stains under Eddie’s jacket.

As in the movie, the musical wakes up whenever the chorus of nuns that saves the church is magically transformed by Deloris into the monastic equivalent of the Rockettes. At other times, you just wait out the witlessness, resigned to the fact that, on this occasion, prayers will not be answered.

Sister Act

Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri and Bill Steinkeller. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography, Anthony Van Laast; lighting, Natasha Katz; sets, Klara Zieglerova; costumes, Lez Brotherston; sound, Ken Travis. With Melvin Abston, Florrie Bagel, Ashley Moniz, Richard Pruitt. About 21 / 2 hours. Tickets, $39 to $125. Through Nov. 10 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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