Sister Mary Clarence, the nun formerly known as nightclub chantoose Deloris Van Cartier, has come to town, news that can only mean that the sensational Sister Act is celebrating musical comedy mass at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

Sister Act Tour Nominated for five Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book, Sister Act (like the movie which inspired it) places its heroine in the wrong place at the wrong time—eyewitness to her gangster boyfriend’s latest hit—with no other place to find refuge than a local convent, surroundings in which she sticks out like a sore thumb. (Considering that the newly rechristened Sister Mary Clarence can no longer smoke, drink, or dress flashy, this is one sore nun as well.)

Sister Act Tour Not surprisingly, it takes little to no time for the former Deloris to find herself at loggerheads with the convent’s by-the-Holy-Book Mother Superior. Less expected, perhaps, is how very quickly Sister Mary Clarence bonds with her fellow nuns, most particularly with the perpetually upbeat Sister Mary Patrick, the meek and mild postulant Sister Mary Robert, and the ever crotchety Sister Mary Lazarus.

Sister Act Tour Given the task of whipping the convent’s unharmonious nun choir into musical shape, Sister Mary Clarence finds her coaching so effective that before you know it, Sunday parishioners are filling the pews like never before, the choir and its director are attracting media attention, and the police detective who has engineered Deloris’s convent hideout begins to worry that media attention will give away her safe haven and have her gangster boyfriend and his Three Stooges showing up at the convent doors, pistols in hand.

Already an audience favorite in its 2006 World Premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, Sister Act had from the start a surefire storyline, a colorful disco-era late 1970s time frame, and a bunch of Alan Menken melodies to rival the composer’s best. The Broadway version savvily retains all of this, including Deloris’s show-opening “Take Me To Heaven” and its nun choir reprise in which Glenn Sater’s secular lyrics take on whole new meanings when sung to a You with a capital Y.

Despite SRO houses, it was clear in ’06 that work was still needed to get Sister Act ready for the Great White Way. Some complained that having Deloris and Mother Superior about the same age cost the musical many of the frictional sparks that marked Whoopi Goldberg’s thorny relationship with Maggie Smith in the movie original. In addition, a couple of Act One scenes seemed extraneous and a ballad-heavy second act slowed down the momentum built in Act One.

Sister Act Tour Still, with some terrific songs by Menken and Slater (is there anyone who writes better melodies than Menkin?), a promising book (by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner), and above all a built-in audience of Sister Act movie fans, there was reason enough to not throw in the wimple.

2009 saw Sister Act’s London debut, with an older (and British) Mother Superior, some reworked scenes and new songs, and a zippier Act Two with fewer solo ballads, making Version 2.0 considerably readier for Broadway. (One of the writers’ sharper moves was to transform the show’s title song from a duel between Mother Superior and Deloris to a celebration of sisterhood, and one that could coax tears from a stone.)

Sister Act Tour Not content with West End improvements, the Sister Act team brought on Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu, The Little Dog Laughed) for “additional book material,” shortened a dive bar scene that work better without a song, and restored Mother Superior’s Act Two showstopper “Haven’t Got A Prayer” now that she was back to being an American (and a Broadway belter to boot). And new lyrics changed the nuns’ autobiographical “How I Got The Calling” to a funnier, more universal “It’s Good To Be A Nun.”

The result of all this tinkering is a musical that ends up a textbook example of too many cooks not spoiling the broth, their combined efforts instead creating a nigh-on perfect Broadway musical. Menken’s songs are not only among his catchiest and most melodic, Sater’s lyrics are every bit as funny and clever as the Steinkellners’ and Beane’s book, the latter’s quirky one-liners hitting the mark again and again.

With legendary director Jerry Zaks on board for Broadway and the current national tour, and an entirely new design team giving Sister Act a pizzazzier look for its New York debut, Sister Act ran for nearly 600 performances (including previews), not a monster hit, but one well worth taking on tour.

Patina Miller (who understudied Deloris in Pasadena) took over the role in London and New York, where she scored a Tony nomination, and her National Tour counterpart Ta’rea Campbell proves every bit as award-worthy, combining Whoopi sass with sensational vocals that portend Broadway stardom.

4.178986 Sister Act Tour
Hollis Resnik’s Mother Superior proves a formidable rival for Campbell’s Sister Mary Clarence, with a charismatic stage presence and rafter-reaching vocals to match.

The dynamic duo of Florrie Bagel and Diane J. Findlay (as Sisters Mary Patrick and Mary Lazarus) are smart enough to pay tribute to the movie’s Kathy Najimy and Mary Wickes) all the while adding their own fresh, original touches. Lael Van Keuren is pitch-perfect as mousy Sister Mary Robert, and just wait till she belts out her Act Two show-stopper “The Life I never Led.”

Sister Act Tour Kingsley Leggs is a marvelously menacing Curtis, imagining the many ways to murder Deloris in the fiendishly funny “When I Find My Baby,” while an irresistible E. Clayton Cornelious demonstrates comedic chops and velvet vocals as Detective “Sweaty Eddie” Souther. (Prepare to be wowed by his “I Could Be That Guy” and its pair of blink-of-an-eye costume changes.) Todd A Horman, Ernie Pruneda, and Charles Barksdale (as Joey, Pablo, and TJ) are Sister Act’s answer to Larry, Mo, and Curly, blending their smooth-as-silk voices in “Lady In The Long Black Dress.” (Barksdale in particular scores laughs as the roly-poly, gay-acting, self-proclaimed lady-loving TJ.) A droll Richard Pruitt (Monsignor O’Hara) completes the all-around topnotch cast of principals.

Sister Act Tour Supporting the above with Broadway panache and/or sisterly joie de vivre are ensemble members* Brian Calì (Joey Finnochio), Karen Elliott (Mary Theresa), Jacqui Graziano, Erin Henry, Ashley Moniz (Tina), Mary Jo McConnell, Michael Millan (Ernie), Michelle Rombola (Waitress), Dawn Rother, Tricia Tanguy, Kelly E. Waters, Erin Wilson (Sister Martin-Of-Tours), Carla Woods (Michelle), and Dashaun Young (Cop).

Choreographer Anthony Van Last, an inspired London addition the Sister Act team, gets the nuns a-dancin’ to one disco-beat song after another, has the Stooges launching into classic backup singer moves when Curtis launches into song, and even finds ways for the homeless to shake their groove things.

Musical director Brent-Alan Huffman conducts Sister Act’s Broadway-caliber orchestra in addition to coaxing the celestial harmonies that fill the Segerstrom. Top marks go too to scenic designer Klara Zieglerova (her cathedral set is simply too divine), sound designer Ken Travis, and wig and hair designer David Brian Brown. Best of all are Lez Brotherston’s glitzy, glittery costumes (and that includes some pretty spectacular habits) and Natasha Katz’s flashy lighting, both of them absolutely “Fabulous, Baby!”

It’s been a long and winding road between Sister Act’s Pasadena Playhouse run and its current National Tour. Seeing the show’s many improvements makes its latest reincarnation a special treat for this reviewer. Still, you don’t to be a Sister Act buff (or even have seen the movie) to fall in love with both Deloris Van Cartier and Sister Mary Clarence at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts. Simply put, Sister Act The Musical is as heavenly as it gets.

*appearing at the Opening Night performance  (This month’s StageSceneLA interviewee Melvin Abston was unfortunately out due to injury.)

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
August 6, 2013
Photos: Joan Marcus

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