Nuns’ singing, dancing saves ‘Sister Act’

The cast of "Sister Act." Photo: Joan Marcus

The cast of “Sister Act.” Photo: Joan Marcus

BOSTON — Singing nuns have always been good box office. “The Sound of Music,” anyone? Playwright Dan Goggin has spun off his hit musical “Nunsense” so many times it makes you dizzy.
“Late Night Catechism” didn’t really have singing and dancing, but it pulled in theater-goers.
So when the 1992 film “Sister Act,” starring Whoopie Goldberg, garnered $230 million at the box office, that made it a prime candidate to eventually become a musical, which it did in 2006. It debuted on Broadway in March of 2011 and ran for 561 performances.
Patina Miller, seen most lately as the Leading Player in ART’s “Pippin,” starred in the role of Deloris Van Cartier on Broadway.
Goldberg is one of the producers of the national tour of “Sister Act” at the Opera House The book is weak, the score by the usually reliable Alan Menken and Glenn Slater pleasant but pedestrian, but there is a kind of infectious enthusiasm in the cast and that, coupled with some boffo production numbers and creative choreography, makes the overall effect greater than the sum of its parts.
For book writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and Douglas Carter Beane, who supplied additional material, one of the challenges is to present a murder in cold blood at the beginning of a musical comedy and then take those same gangsters and reincarnate them later in the show as lovable song-and-dance men. Tain’t easy, McGee.
The book writers have changed the setting from San Francisco to Philadelphia in the 1970’s. That allows the writers to channel every cultural icon from the decade, including Barry White, the Bee Gees and our own Dorchester diva, the late Donna Summer, as well as 70’s styles, fashions and music — the score includes soul, funk, R&B, and a heaping helping of disco.
Ta’rea Campbell stars as Deloris Van Cartier, a promising singer/dancer who accidentally witnesses a Christmas Eve murder by her boyfriend Curtis (Kingsley Leggs).
Curtis and his henchmen go after Deloris, but she finds refuge in a Philadelphia police station and a high school friend turned cop named “Sweaty” Eddie Souther (E. Clayton Cornelius as a Philadelphia cop not allowed to carry a gun? Paging Frank Rizzo).
He proposes hiding Deloris out at the nearby Queen of Angels convent until she can testify at Curtis’ trial.
Curtis and his Three Stooges henchmen (Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda and Charles Barksdale) meanwhile, are scouring the city, hoping to find and silence Deloris — for good.
The book does its best create the expected friction between since Doloris and the put-upon Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik). Richard Pruitt has a nice turn as Monsignor O’Hara, who sees his chance to shine once the convent goes show-biz.
Deloris’ cover becomes Sister Mary Clarence, with recurring joke that every one of the nuns is Mary something-or-other, with Sister Mary Lazarus (Diane J. Findlay), of course, the oldest of the bunch
“Sister Act” really sags when Doloris and the nuns aren’t doing their thing, but when they do start doing their thing late in the first act, watch out.
“Sister Act” owes much to the many inventive ways costume designer Lez Brotherston has adorned the nuns’ habits, and the efforts of the singing, dancing corps of nuns themselves, led by a wavering postulant named Mary Robert (Lael Van Keuren), who gets to sing Menken‘s and Slater’s best effort — “The Life I Never Led.”
The production numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Sunday Morning Fever” are other highlights.
Choreographer Anthony Van Laast runs the nuns ragged in the production numbers to good effect, and veteran director Jerry Zaks does his best to overcome the creaky book, which regularly strains credulity, even for a musical.
If you can look a blind eye at the creaky book and hang on until the singing nuns arrive to save the day, “Sister Act” eventually delivers.
“Sister Act,” book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane. Based on the movie “Sister Act” written by Joseph Howard. Music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. Directed by Jerry Zaks. At the Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston, through Feb. 3.