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Theater Review: Sister Act at the PPAC

I’ve had two big musical theater pleasant surprises in the past year or so. The first was The Addams Family, and the second was Sister Act. Never having seen the movie before, I walked in expecting some cheesy story about nuns and gospel music. But what I got was a funny, uplifting, and sparkling (literally. So many sparkles) musical that stands on its own.

Based on a 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name, Sister Act is about Deloris van Cartier (Ta’Rea Campbell), a singer in the late 1970′s who is forced to join a convent to hide from her boss and lover Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs) after she witnesses him killing someone. She initially clashes with Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) about living the humble nun lifestyle, but she eventually finds her calling conducting the church choir and teaching them how to raise their voices and get funky with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Much of the show’s vocal heft is on Ms. Campbell’s capable shoulders, and she handles it admirably. She channels other divas like Diana Ross and Jennifer Hudson, and although she isn’t quite as transcendent as those ladies, she has a lot of spunk and a huge voice, with great comic timing. She works very well with Ms. Resnik, who is quite good as the severe, pious, yet warm nun and with her love interest, police officer Eddie (E. Clayton Cornelious). Also memorable are Lael van Keuren as nun-in-training Mary Robert and Florrie Bagel as boisterous, eager nun Mary Patrick. But everyone in the cast is wonderful, playing his or her part with passion and skill.

As befitting something based off a Whoopi movie, the show is very funny. It is chock full of religion (Catholic) jokes, and some more uptight people might get offended by all the shots taken at the church and liberties taken with the Church, but they never get too harsh. And on the other spectrum, even if you miss some of the references (which is inevitable, with all those Biblical names being thrown around), you won’t miss out on much. While the show is about nuns and features many songs with a religious flavor, it never comes across as preachy or overly pious. Many of the show’s laughs come from the inherent humor in nuns doing un-nunlike things like rapping and using a jukebox, and the show deftly combines visual and verbal jokes.

The music is very obviously 1970′s-influenced, but not in a cliched way. It has elements of funk, disco, smooth jazz, and rock, and almost all the songs are upbeat and lively. The few ballads drag a little bit, but the excitement of the other big songs overshadows them. Stand-out songs are “Take Me To Heaven,” and “Raise Your Voice,” and basically any one that features the tight and energetic female choir singing together.

Despite its setting, Sister Act doesn’t come off as a period piece like some other recent shows (Memphis and Catch Me if You Can come to mind, which perhaps explains why I found them so disappointing). The 1970s is the backdrop for the story rather than the star, which is the music and the acting. All the elements come together to make Sister Act a show that will automatically put a smile on your face, either from the singing, dancing, sequined habits, or giant disco-ball statue of Mother Mary.

Sister Act is playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center until April 14. Call 401-421-ARTS for tickets or visit www.ppacri.org. Some foul language, violence, and sexual situations. May be inappropriate for young children.

Cast of Sister Act. Credit: Joan Marcus.

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