SISTER ACT THE MUSICAL

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _10th JUN.

June 5, 2023

images © Manuel Harlan.

Note: TWE reviewed  ‘Sister Act the Musical’ earlier in its current tour. Given that this is the same touring production, what follows is a revised version of that same review, updated for its visit to the Wolverhampton Grand.

Pre-pandemic, the musical theatre scene fizzed with something of a buzz for an announced revival of Sister Act The Musical promising something of a twist. Not only would it be overseen by OG ‘Deloris’, Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg, but so too would it be a hybridised version of the stage musical, intercut with some of the jukebox hits from the film.

And then? Enter COVID-19, stage left.

Four years on, it seems that perhaps God does, after all, move in mysterious ways. For whilst ‘Act’ MkII would have no doubt been an interesting curio to visit, and few would likely have denied the appeal of seeing Goldberg back involved in the habit, on the merits of this most fabulous new London and touring production that materialised, our stagey prayers were answered, anyway.

Wisely abandoning much of the tinkering and restyling done by Craig Revel Horwood in his 2016/17 tour of the show – not least of all its somewhat divisive ‘actor-muso’ infusion – Sister Act 2023 brings itself much closer in line with the original, celebrated West End production. Like the film that inspired it, it tells the story of washed-up lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Sandra Marvin) who, after witnessing her gangster boyfriend murdering a mole, goes on the run and, eventually, into hiding in a struggling nunnery.

“Sister Act takes so much of the fish-out-of-water hijinks that made the film such a smash and dials them up to eleven…”

On stage, Sister Act takes so much of the fish-out-of-water hijinks that made the film such a smash and dials them up to eleven, as brass, sassy Deloris butts heads (and, indeed, butts) with the convent’s no-nonsense Mother Superior (Lesley Joseph) whilst forming an unlikely and wholesome friendship with the Nuns about her. Characters grow. Lessons are learnt. And, for the stage, it’s all given a glitzy, sequinned gloss thanks to being transplanted to the ’70s. A move that lends a perfectly apt disco styling, only solidified by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s terrific score that offers echoes of everything of the era from Studio 54 to The Jackson Five and even a soupçon of Marvin Gaye.

The show’s got good, groovy ‘bones’, then. Which always helps, but a show as spunky, funky and funny as Sister Act will live or die by its cast. So praise whatever deity gives you your ‘Sunday Morning Fever’, then, for the utterly joyful ensemble of this latest Act. Without any egress or sensationalism, this is one of the most divine companies you could wish to watch treading the boards (and raising the roof).

Front and centre is the ever-fabulous Sandra Marvin, who, vocal powerhouse as ever, proves herself a formidable comedienne here, too. It’s a quite perfect blessing of performer and role, and right from her toe-tapping, scene-setting double-whammy opener of ‘Take Me To Heaven’ and ‘Fabulous, Baby!’, you know from the outset that not only are you in safe hands, not only has this Act got its Deloris down pat, but a damn high bar has been set that, amazingly, Marvin’s co-stars manage to routinely play up to, as well. It’s giddying fun to revisit the tour many months in and see Marvin continuing to plough every scene and set piece for new beats of sass and funny, and taking her numbers to new places, too; see a particularly soulful rendition of the titular ballad this time round, for instance.

Lizzie Bea continues her ascent as a leading lady of the stage on the rise, with a beautifully observed take on the timid but kindly Sister Mary Robert. Her Act II soul searcher, ‘The Life I Never Led’ is breathtakingly strong.  Alfie Parker makes for a loveable Eddie, benefiting from one of the evening’s best and funniest numbers. On a similar note, special mention must go to Castell Parker, who stepped in for the performance reviewed to cover the role of TJ – one of a trio of bumbling henchmen – and put in a superb, soulful performance alongside Damian Buhagiar and Tom Hopcroft, all of whom were on hilarious form stealing scenes (and hearts!) aplenty.

“It’s giddying fun to revisit the tour many months in and see Marvin continuing to plough every scene and set piece for new beats of sass and funny…”

Catherine Millsom and Anne Smith take on Kathy Najimy and Mary Wickes’ supporting Nuns from the film, and they are each utterly joyous and hilariously cranky, respectively. And you can’t help but be bowled over by the wonderful Lesley Joseph, still belting out the numbers and cutting a rug at the venerable age of 77. Joseph felt notably more confident in and vocally resonant in the role of Mother Superior this time round, too (having first played Sister Mary Lazarus to Jennifer Saunders‘ Mother Superior), and is a hoot during the cantakerous, unglamorous frustrations of ‘Haven’t got a prayer’. And naturally, being the complete pro that she is, Joseph handled a minor staging malfunction during that very number with consummate wit and flair.

For somewhat mystifying reasons, Morgan Large’s otherwise showy and suitably vibrant staging is noticeably pared back for its residency in Wolverhampton and these later tour venues. Some visual flourishes – such as Deloris ascending on a giant glitter ball for her ‘Fabulous, Baby!’ reprise – are notably absent, and entire portions of the set’s framing have been chopped, leaving the stage occasionally feeling a trifle bare when it ventures too far from the convent. It’s still a funky, glitzy piece to look at, though, and despite some of these noticeable edits, it looks great framed within the Grand auditorium. It’s just a pity to see it stripped back from its former, dazzling opulence.

There remains, of course, plenty of fun character beats and staging wrinkles to enjoy – watch as Deloris’ ‘sisters’ pop out from inside cupboards, beneath beds and other peekaboo surprises, in a move reminiscent of the postmodern quirks of Marianne Elliot‘s recent revival of Company.

“It’s difficult to imagine a more consistently uplifting, irrepressible and entertaining evening of musical theatre…”

These minor quibbles aside though, for the most part everything here just works. And does so at such a consistently high level, it’s difficult to imagine a more consistently uplifting, irrepressible and entertaining evening of musical theatre.

We almost didn’t get this glittering, pitch-perfect incarnation of Sister Act The Musical. This transcendent joyful noise of camp, colourful fabulousness. And, whilst there will likely always be some with a modicum of curiosity as to what form the previously-announced hybrid Act could have taken, and ponder how successful chopping up Menken and Slater’s score to make room for jukebox classics may have been, on the basis of this gorgeous cast, still-glitzy presentation and all-round divine treat that is Sister Act The Musical, one can’t help but have another tried-and-test homily spring to mind, too.

Namely – if it ain’t broke, don’t crucifix it.

Gorgeous, glittering, joyful noise. This is ‘Sister Act’, back in the habit, and better than ever. Marvin leads a faultless, divinely gifted congregation, who knock one of the shows of the year out of the pews, and right up into the rafters. Amen.

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