When the opportunity arose to review Sister Act at Curve theatre, I said a little prayer of thanks and couldn’t wait to see Deloris Van Cartier teach those nuns a thing or two about music. As two of my favourite films of the nineties, “Sister Act” and “Sister Act 2: Back in Habit” have a special place in my heart, but the question of whether the magic could be replicated on the stage, especially without the Motown inspired soundtrack, somewhat overshadowed the “joyful joyful” news of this review. Entering an auditorium with preconceptions is dangerous for a reviewer, so I put my fears to one side and settle in, waiting to feel “Fabulous Baby”.
This touring version of Sister Act is claimed to be a divine musical that will have you on your feet by the end of the show. Well, we’ll see how it pans out and if I get that ‘fabulous’ feeling and rise to my feet or not. I’m praying I do.
Deloris Van Cartier (Sandra Marvin) is a 1970s lounge singer, trying to make it big. She makes the wrong choice in dating gangster Curtis Jackson (Jeremy Secomb), and ends up hiding from him in in a convent in witness protection organised by Eddie Souther (Graham Maduff), a good, “steady” cop, under the watchful eye of Mother Superior (Lesley Joseph). What could possibly go wrong when the loud, brash, sequin-adorned Deloris joins the nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow?
The Disco mood is set by the overture before the curtain raises, and the audience are already giving some of that deep shoulder action as the echoey (excellent reverb from sound designer Tom Marshall) Convent is revealed. The set really showcases the expanse of Curve stage, and set designer Morgan Large’s skill in turning a convent into a nightclub into the streets of Philadelphia is to be applauded. I just love the attention to detail with my particular favourite being the alter with a crucifix on top being turned into a bar with the cross as the beer pump. Genius! And not at all blasphemy…
This musical never takes itself too seriously – after all it is a musical comedy. As soon as Sister Mary Lazarus (Anne Smith) utters “oh crap” in the opening, you know these nuns are not those from “The Sound of Music”. As an ensemble, the nuns are fantastic; they have a real sense of moral purpose with some amazing singing voices – one standout moment for me is the end note of “The Life I Never Led”. It is a goosebumps moment to be sure, especially coming from Sister Mary Robert (Lizzie Bea), who sang like a mouse before being inspired by Delores. The choreography (Alistair David) is everything you would expect from a comedy set in the 1970s – there are exaggerated and raunchy disco moves aplenty. There is a moment where I genuinely think the nuns are going to twerk across the stage as the audience looks on with open mouthed grins – gyrating nuns certainly wouldn’t happen in Nonnberg Abbey!
Curtis’ three henchmen have some hilarious songs and choreography, and I just love the harmonies, falsetto and Osmonds vibe. Pablo (Damian Buhagier), Joey (Tom Hopcroft) and TJ (Bradley Judge) have been written to be more stooge-like than dangerous though, which doesn’t always work for me in terms of the plot. There needs to be an element of real threat from these characters or the decision to place Delores in the convent only works if Curtis, her mobster boyfriend, is truly menacing. Alas, I feel that his character is somewhat lacking in intimidation. The song “When I Find My Baby”, is disturbing in the sense that it’s got a love song melody, upbeat backing but is about Curtis wanting to murder Delores. However strong Secomb’s voice and performance are, I can’t see him as a real threat, thereby rendering the plot a little too contrived. This is where my biggest issue is with Sister Act. It is driven by the songs, rather than the plot, and an excellent musical arguably has both. There is not enough character establishment or relationship development. This is absolutely nothing to do with the cast or production team who give their all to the show. It’s sadly in the writing, or perhaps the re-writing, that took place when Whoopi Goldberg looked to be reprising the role of Delores pre-Covid.
Tonight, we did not get Whoopi, but we did get the powerhouse that is Sandra Marvin, who belts out numbers such as “Take Me to Heaven”, “Fabulous Baby” and “Raise Your Voice”. She is sassy and confident and her comedic facial expressions are priceless! The chemistry between Marvin and Lesley Joseph is clear, and these two women contrast each other incredibly well. I was excited to know that I would be watching Lesley Joseph in the role of Mother Superior, and she definitely did not disappoint. Her deadpan delivery and complete embodiment of the traditional (in public…say no more…) and rather weary nun in charge is perfect. When she sings “Here Within These Walls”, Joseph absolutely commands the stage, and it’s hard to tear your eyes away. At this moment, I felt I was in the presence of acting royalty. Bravo Lesley Joseph!
I laugh a lot during this performance, I cringe at some of the cheesy, awkward moments, and by the end, I, along with the rest of the auditorium, am on my feet. The songs aren’t as catchy as I would like (although just as I was writing this note, a slower song suddenly came to life with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it costume change; I was unfortunately looking down during this second – don’t make my mistake), and you do miss the well-known classics from the film, but this isn’t the film on stage – it’s a rewrite FOR the stage. It doesn’t always work for me but it clearly works for the rest of the auditorium who were definitely raising their voices at the end with a full standing ovation.
Sister Act will be taking audiences to heaven at Curve theatre until Saturday 29 October.