‘Sister Act’: When the convent discovered disco

The sisters of the Queen of Angels Convent sing out in Lyric Stage’s “Sister Act.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – For decades almost any play or musical featuring nuns has been a go from the start in the Greater Boston area. “Nunsense” and its many sequels and “Late Night Catechism,” for example, packed them in.

Sure, the number of parochial schools and the sisters teaching in them has declined drastically in recent years, but old habits – pun intended – die hard and the memories and bruises from raps across the knuckles are still there.  

It stands to reason to reason that any musical that has the good sisters – in the traditional habit, of course —  rockin’ out, singing and dancing and in general performing conduct unbecoming a nun is going to find an audience..

And so we have Lyric Stage Company’s  “Sister Act,” the stage musical based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith.

In developing the story for the stage, there was tinkering, moving the site from Las Vegas in the 1990’s to Philadelphia in the 1970’s. Cue the disco music in the lively score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

Director Leigh Barrett has made some wise decisions in her casting, not the least of which was the casting of the show-stopping Yewande Odetoyinbo in the lead role of Deloris Van Cartier (“Like the jewelry”), a Philadelphia singer and dancer impatient to get her career in gear.

She feels she is being held back by her boyfriend, gangster and nightclub owner Curtis Jackson (Damon Singletary), a man with questionable connections.

When Deloris walks in after Curtis has just conducted a “questioning” of an associate on Christmas Eve that turns deadly, she realizes she’s an eyewitness to a murder.

Kathy St. George and the cast of “Sister Act.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

She seeks help at the nearby police station, where she tells her story to Eddie Southern, a desk cop and former schoolmate nicknamed “Sweaty Eddie,” then a nerd who always had the hots for her. It’s a problematic character but Davron S. Monroe is up to the task and then some, channeling his inner Travolta while changing costumes on the fly in “I Could Be That Guy.”

Eddie has an idea. Stash Deloris in the last place anyone would look for her – a convent.

Luckily for both Eddie and Deloris, there’s a local parish named Queen of Angels desperate for money and threatening to close its doors.

The church agrees to shelter Deloris for the police but she quickly runs afoul of the convent’s many rules. That sets up the rarest of birds: A Mother Superior who is a “villain,” so to speak. Cheryl McMahon plays the by-the-book nun who has the thankless job of trying to reign in Sister Mary Clarence (Deloris’s new moniker), part of a running joke as each nun has the name “Sister Mary Fillintheblank.”

McMahon has a nice musical moment in explaining her beliefs in “Here Within These Walls.”

Then there’s the very funny and ironic “It’s Good to be a Nun” which then goes on to lists the dozens of reasons it’s not always that much fun, if not ultimately rewarding.

There’s many ways to praise God, and Deloris seems to have found all of the ones no one ever thought of before when she is assigned – as a punishment – to work with the woebegone parish choir, taking over for a hopelessly overmatched Sister Mary Lazarus (Kathy St. George).

The time being the late 1970’s, the disco influence wins out: Nuns are performing killer dance moves. habits are festooned with sequins, there’s a disco ball, and pews are filled with donating church-goers.

The show really comes alive when it comes time for the sisters to strut their stuff.

“Take Me to Heaven” is a roof-raiser of a production number, as is the second-act opener “Sunday Morning Fever.” “Spread the Love Around” and “Raise Your Voice” give the sequined sisters even more chances to shine.

Unfortunately, the resultant publicity blows Deloris’ cover, and threatens both her and the other sisters.

There’s some fine support from Kira Troilo as the postulant Sister Mary Robert, who gets a chance to sing about what she left behind in “The Life I Never Led.”

Joelle Lurie is the feisty, perky Sister Mary Patrick and the forementioned St. George and Amie Lytle are a hoot as Sister Mary Lazarus and Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours.

Todd Yard’s Monsignor O’Hara signs on quickly to the new-look choir before getting into the spirit and morphing into a clerically-garbed Barry White.

And, of course, always leading the way is Odetoyinbo as Deloris, with boundless talent and energy, electrifying the production numbers.

If there is one area that falls a bit short from the others, it is the book by Bill and Cheri Steinkeller, with additional material from longtime book doctor Douglas Carter Beane. The set-up gets the show off to a slow start and it would be wonderful indeed if all gangsters were as ineffectual as Curtis and his gang. Tamp down the disbelief about the plotline and enjoy the music and the dancing.

This is one of the shows that was difficult to cram onto Lyric’s intimate three-quarter thrust stage, but kudos to Barrett, nonpareil scenic designer Jenna McFarland Lord, and choreographer Dan Sullivan for deftly using every inch of space available to get it done. Kelly Baker’s costumes are a big plus, and Alex Burg’s sound and Christopher Brusberg’s lighting shine in the production numbers.

Combine it all, and the result is a crowd-pleasing, feel-good, no-heavy-lifting musical.

And one other long-held truth still holds true: Who doesn’t love a dancing and singing nun?

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “Sister Act.” Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner. Additional material by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Leigh Barrett. Music director, David F. Coleman. Choreography, Dan Sullivan. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through May 14. $25-$80.  www.lyricstage.com

Cheryl McMahon and Yewande Odetoyinbo in the Lyric State Company’s “Sister Act.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.