Sister Act: nunconventional and nun too shabby

Now, I’m not one to preach, but one thing’s for certain – the UK tour of Sister Act is nun too shabby. Despite being right at home in the dizzying heights of the West End and Broadway, Whoopi Goldberg’s smash-hit musical is nun-theless praying for success in un-convent-ional venues around the UK and Ireland. Okay, the venues are fine. But there was no way I couldn’t make that pun. With divine staging and miraculous vocals, this production is second to nun. Some might say … nuntouchable. I better stop before it becomes a habit.

Everyone knows the plot of the film version. There are a few changes here (we’re in Philadelphia rather than San Francisco for a start) but the premise is the same. Disco singer sees someone get shot by lover. Lover vows to kill disco singer. Disco singer goes into hiding in a convent. Lover is, for a while, nun the wiser (that one just slipped out). Musical/nun-related hilarity and feel-good-ness ensues.

Our disco singer is Deloris Van Cartier, played by the glowing Cynthia Erivo. If you contrast this tour with the West End show (which you can do – there have been script and set changes galore), Erivo is at risk of seeming a nunderstudy to Patina Miller who originated the role with breathtaking panache (no nun intended). However, from the very first line of ‘Fabulous Baby’, Erivo’s effortlessly smooth vocals blow this suggestion out of the water.

As Deloris goes “incognegro” as Sister Mary Clarence, her lover/gang ringleader Curtis, played by the silky Cavin Cornwall, edges ever closer to finding out the truth. The plot is shifted along super quickly and, within 45 seconds of the shooting, we have the first entrance of the nun choir singing in laugh-out-loud discord. As their Mother Superior (Denise Black) says, “God loves us when we sing … even like that”. The nuns are a fine bunch – varied and well-characterised, with a chuckle-heavy turn from Jacqueline Clarke as rapping Sister Mary Lazarus.

Michael Starke is underemployed as Monsignor O’Hara and, despite having some of the best dialogue, Denise Black doesn’t quite make the most of the Mother Superior’s conservative disapproval. Yet you’ll still feel your ribs being tickled with such belters as: Deloris: “Is there a smoking section?” / Mother Superior: “Yes dear, and you’re headed for it”.

This production is a technical success as much as anything else. The set has been scaled down perfectly and the compromises made to make set, sound, lighting and costume fit into several touring lorries don’t scupper any plot points or key dramatic moments. The sound design is also flawless, which is a boring but necessary compliment to pay.

The dramatic highlights are Deloris’ palpable transformation from fast-and-loose showgirl to pseudo-nun, and the occasional moments when Curtis and his gang steal the show. Daniel Stockton as Joey will please fans of Anchorman with the musical number ‘Lady in the Long Black Dress’. Equally, Eddie (Edward Baruwa) has his show-stopping Mr. Cellophane moment with ‘I Could Be That Guy’. And how could I not mention Julie Atherton’s unbelievable belting as Sister Mary Robert.

The staging may not be as glitzy as the West End (these sisters have to carry on their own pews) but, when Deloris gets her choir singing for the first time with ‘Raise Your Voice’, Sister Act takes off. The finale feels like being punched in the face by a giant glittery fist. A singing fist. But every single audience member rolled with those sparkly punches and danced their way home. Even with the ticket price, this is a must-see.

-Phosile Mashinkila