Full disclosure: I feel like I should dismiss Sister Act as unworthy because it is silly, predictable, calculatedly commercial, and something surely to be sneered at. In other words, it is to Stephen Sondheim as The Love Boat is to Masterpiece Theatre. Well, so much for my assumptions. How can you not chortle at a show where a phalanx of nuns are urged to “shake it like you’re Mary Magdalene?”
The key to Sister Act’s success is that it never takes itself too seriously. The authors (composer Alan Menken, lyricists Tony and Glenn Slater, and book writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with Douglas Carter Beane) embrace the preposterous premise with fervor akin to a postulant gripping her rosary beads.
As for that ridiculous premise: It centers on Deloris, a struggling singer who inadvertently witnesses a murder and hides in a convent in order to escape her own last rites. Wackiness ensues as Deloris sheds her thigh-high purple boots and hotpants for a habit. She proceeds to create musical, and sequined, uproar in the tightly wound convent.
Menken’s score isn’t particularly complex, but it is certainly catchy as it veers from delicate, a cappella chorales to Gospel-tinged barnburners and disco-era grooves to Bee Gees-influenced ballads. Set in the late 1970s, Sister Act mines a hefty load of comedy from the porn-like ‘stache, wide-lapel leisure suits, and bedazzled, skin-tight jumpsuits.
More importantly, Sister Act sounds terrific. As Deloris, Ta’Rea Campbell serves up disco queen realness with an extra side of sassitude. And as the Mother Superior, the Chicagoan Hollis Resnick is a Holy Roller beltress of the first order. Boogie on, sisters. Boogie on.
Catey Sullivan is Chicago magazine’s contributing theater critic.
Photograph: Broadway in Chicago