Review: Sister Act. Milton Keynes Theatre.

When the ‘Sister Act’ musical came along in 2009, naysayers groaned in unison at “yet another” beloved film being turned into a showtune-filled stage experience.  Luckily they were proven wrong when the joyful production turned out to be a hit, building on the 1992 movie while also giving the show an identity in its own right.  In the hands of Disney icon Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, the uplifting score and loveable characters ensured that audiences took the show to their hearts, and it remains popular today, with a tour currently working its way around the country, which plays this week at Milton Keynes Theatre.

Taking place on Christmas Eve 1977 in Philadelphia, aspiring diva Deloris Van Cartier (Sandra Marvin) witnesses a murder by her married lover Curtis (Jeremy Secomb).  Desperate for protection, Deloris runs to the police, where police chief Eddie Southern (Graham MacDuff) comes up with the idea of hiding her at Our Lady Of Perpetual Sorrow church, under the watch of their Mother Superior (Lesley Joseph).  After spectacularly failing to blend in, Deloris is permitted to sing with the choir, and under her teaching, the group start to sound the best they ever had.  However, the rising media attention puts Deloris back in the spotlight and on Curtis’ radar once more, and he has a very different plan in mind for her.

‘Sister Act’ has never been particularly deep or profound (neither was the film), but it isn’t trying to be.  It sets out to entertain and put smiles on faces, which it does with flying colours and an unashamed sense of fun. The book (by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) is sharp and witty, bringing regular laughs while also making audiences care about these women.  Menken and Slater’s score works as a fun fusion of Motown, gospel and disco, and barely puts a foot wrong.  The opening rendition of “Take Me To Heaven” has been shortened since the original production, making its reprise at the end of Act 1 a little less effective, and replacing “How I Got The Calling” with “It’s Good To Be A Nun” is still a strange decision.  The former song was far funnier and it also gave Sister Mary Robert a backstory to explain why she doesn’t know where her true place is.  But these are small niggles when overall it’s a great score, upbeat and joyful, and it also successfully defies its original criticism of using original material rather than simply performing the songs from the film.

Confidently directed by Bill Buckhurst, this production of ‘Sister Act’ feels bold, bright and full of colour, with a great sense of movement, and is a real pleasure to look at.  Morgan Large’s sets and costumes are particularly impressive, with the convent scenes looking especially beautiful (helped further by lighting design by Tim Mitchell), reminding us what touring production values should be after a couple of years of more bare-bones productions. 

Sandra Marvin leads the show fantastically as Deloris, bringing a boatload of sass to the character while remaining likeable, and her voice soars in her musical numbers, adding a few new well-chosen riffs to the score to make it her own.  Lesley Joseph proves what a superb comedic actress she is and plays Mother Superior brilliantly with sharp-tongued sarcasm.  She may “Rex Harrison” her way through some of her songs, but she’s so good at the character that it works.  Also as Sister Mary Robert, Lizzie Bea gives what might be the most likeable portrayal of the character in any production to date, with her big eyes radiating an innocent kindness that will melt audiences’ hearts.  She also goes on to belt a frankly legendary version of “The Life I Never Led” which practically warrants a standing ovation all on its own.  A special mention should also go to Catherine Millsom as Sister Mary Patrick, who plays the perky nun with an incredible warmth and joy that even the back row of the balcony will feel. 

It may not be Sondheim or Shakespeare, but for pure feel-good entertainment, ‘Sister Act’ is a triumph on its own terms.  Wanting nothing more than to entertain, it hits levels of joyful escapism that make audiences glad they got off their sofa and joined the party, especially with its kaleidoscopic rainbow of a finale that finishes things off on a high.  “Sister Act” is really is heaven-sent, and watching it should become a “habit” that never needs to be broken.

‘Sister Act’ runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 26th November before continuing on its UK tour.

Performance runtime 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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