By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
Only heaven and producer Whoopi Goldberg know why Sister Act — the 1992 film featuring Goldberg as Deloris Van Cartier, a soul singer who spies a murder committed by her gangster boyfriend and gets witness protection in a San Francisco convent — deserves its own musical in 2013.
It was cute, sure, but not exactly the type of flick people walk around quoting. Maybe changing its setting to 1970s Philly and rooting its tunes among TSOP and Philadelphia International Records-style slow jams is an appeal to the changing demographics of the Great White Way. Maybe Goldberg just really, really liked that movie; Broadway works in mysterious ways.
There’s about as much resonance in Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane's book as there is in, say, Mamma Mia!, another cheery populist confection (though in-jokes about Market St. misses vs. Rittenhouse Square matrons are always appreciated). But unlike that jukebox musical, Alan Menken’s original tunes and Glenn Slater’s lyrics add street-level grit to Sister Act.
Bad guy Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs) and his henchmen sing an old school O’Jays-style ode to Deloris in “When I Find My Baby,” except inside the crooning and synchronized dance moves are lyrics such as these: “Ain’t gonna let that girl get away! No way! Because when I find that girl... I’m gonna kill that girl!”
“That girl” just happens to be a real-life Philly homegirl, Ta’rea Campbell. And whether it’s due to all this hometown flavor, Campbell’s exuberant, big-voiced performance, or all those glitter-habited South Philly nuns making a truly joyful noise, the whole thing works, and works in a way that combines sincerity, fun and good old rafter-rattling.
Veteran Broadway director Jerry Zaks knows which buttons his audience want pushed. Thus, Hollis Resnik’s Mother Superior — Deloris’ strait-laced nemesis — channels a world-weary Elaine Stritch (circa “I’m Still Here”) in “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” and Deloris’ sass carries not a little of Little Shop of Horrors’ girl-group gusto.
So, no, Sister Act isn’t a particularly cutting-edge, or even very relevant evening of musical theater. However, it is a surprisingly good time that celebrates another very good time in this city’s musical history.
By Wendy Rosenfield