Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sister Act

How refreshing would it be to see a movie, a good movie at that, translated for the stage and not simply transferred to the stage? I might just drop to my knees and yell, "Whoopi!" Instead, I rose to my feet. To be fair, I stood, in part, because I was sitting in the first row (rush tickets, $23.50) and would have felt like an a-hole were I the only one sitting, staring up at a stage full of hard-working actors who just sweated through their wimples on my behalf. I am not a stander, usually, unless it is earned but neither am I so principled I won't rise to an occasion, occasionally.

I stand for different reasons. Sometimes to applaud a spectacular production, like The Book of Mormon. Sometimes to applaud a spectacular performance, like any number of Velmas during the first decade of Chicago's revival run. Sometimes to applaud a life's work, like Elaine Stritch in At Liberty, although it qualified on all three fronts. And sometimes I applaud because I appreciate the effort, especially when the effort is to create actual theatre.
Sister Act could have Priscilla'd its way on stage and probably would have been completely successful. It is a fun movie, a fun idea, and funny. This is no facsimile, although the Kathy Najimy chracter is more Najimy than character in this production, right down to the giggle and mannerisms. But Sarah Bolt doesn't just stand behind a mask and pantomime, a la Lion King. She mines the new jokes and earns the laughs.

Patina Miller is no Whoopi Goldberg. She's a singer, first of all. And a fine dancer. She has a swagger that is in no way reminiscent of Whoopi's nebbishy, George Jefferson on estrogen. That is not to say Miller is better or worse. She lack's Whoopi's it. Lacks her comic sediment. But Miller works her tail off, makes the role her own, guides you on a toe-tapping journey with very little off-stage time, connects some occasionally disconnected dots (no doubt the handiwork of accountants, creative committee, and forest-for-the-trees decisions), and does it all with a mega-watt smile and a triple threat.

Audrie Neenan is no Mary Wickes. It would be unfair to hold her to that standard; but she is charming, funny, grouchy, gruff, and hilarious. She does for the stage production exactly what Ms. Wickes did for the movie, without mimicry or acquisition.

The men are generally weaker than the women, but they have less to do. It is, after all, a show about nuns. (And how nice it is to see a show with a large group of women, all shapes and sizes, looking like real women--beautifully real.) Back to the men. Fred Applegate is just about perfect in a small and stereotypical role. Demond Green is charmingly stereotypical as the comedic half-wit. Caeser Samayoa, Kinglsey Leggs, and John Treacy Egan provide adequate ado for their stereotypical roles as the Hispanic thug, the black thug, and the delusional lothario. . .thug. Chester Gregory underwhelms and never elevates his function beyond the functional.

That the script could be torn from the pages of any How to Make a Musical handbook is almost irrelevant. The show isn't trying to take on social issues or make revolutionary changes in the musical form or the human spirit. The writers, most celebrated in the sitcom format, don't fall back on television habits thankfully. They may not be creating deeply thoughtful drama, but they thoughtfully created the script for its medium--no doubt helped considerably by the contributions of theatre veteran, Douglas Carter Beane. The sets were inspired but the directing and choreography were not. Jerry Zaks merely directs traffic, and Anthony Van Laast seems to think he is choreographing a marching band.

The score, too, is formulaic; but fortunately the formula is Alan Menken's. He actually circumnavigates a fairly dangerous obstacle. Much of the fun of the movie comes from the brilliant Mark Shaiman arrangements of popular songs twisted for divine measure. With no help from ASCAP, Menken and lyricist, Glenn Slater, create songs with popular themes and sounds that sound devilish--and Massively innappropriate. The songs are catchy, hummable, and engrossing at their best moments; but the whirlwind of fun is sometimes reduced to a pffft. The greatest sufferer is the Victoria Clark fan. Why on Earth you would cast that voice and give her such forgettable, unsingable nonsense is beyond me. It seems almost maliciously written for the least navigable parts of her voice. She is solid in the role but shoulders the burden of the worst songs in the show.

Marla Mindelle seems to have been cast more for the look than the goods in the role of the postulant who finds her voice. There is a look the actress in the movie makes when she sings her first note at a decibel heard by humans. Mindelle co-0pted the look and repeats it every time she opens her mouth. It's like a one-note Groundhog Day, literally. She needs more punch and more power, but her solo of epiphany and empowerment is strong enough to do her penance.

The show commits a couple of sins. For reasons unknown and unnecessary it is set in 1976-77, so the gratuitous moon walking and granny rapping are completely out of place--but they get their laugh. Not the first time virtue has been traded for a tickle. Those transgressions aside, the show is a gift from the theatre goods--not perfect, not brilliant but perfectly fun and funny--equal parts intelligent design and big bang.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a devoted Victoria Clark fan, thanks for the warning!