Deloris Carter – or, rather Deloris Van Cartier, as she has refashioned herself – wants to make it big in the music biz. As a young woman in 1977 Philadelphia, she longs for fame, imagining herself like Donna Summer, resplendent in a glamorous white gown and white fur coat.
Instead, she’s a little desperate, in her thigh-high boots, too-short shorts and loud, spangled top. She thinks her thug of a boyfriend, Curtis, is the key to her dreams. But as her story unfolds in “Sister Act,” Deloris realizes the key to her dream is within herself.
And in a convent.
The Tony-nominated musical comedy, at the INB Performing Arts Center this weekend as part of West Coast Entertainment’s Best of Broadway series, is lighthearted and high-energy, a feel-good show that is also quite funny. And no wonder it’s funny – it’s based on the smash hit film from 1992 that starred Whoopi Goldberg (who co-produced the stage version).
The plots are similar. Deloris (Ta’Rea Campbell) witnesses Curtis killing someone, and the police stash her for her protection in a convent (where she can be “incognegro”). There, Deloris butts heads with the Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) and teaches the sisters to sing. Along the way, Deloris helps the singing sisters save the convent, brings Mother Superior around and then finds love with a nice guy.
That the music is fabulous goes without question. Written by Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar winner (“Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin”), and Glen Slater, a Grammy winner for “I See the Light,” from “Tangled,” the “Sister Act” score blends soul, disco and gospel. And the bit where Sister Mary Lazarus (Roberta B. Wall) does a take on the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” is, well, delightful and hilarious. The book, by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, features double-entendres and sarcastic quips, and spot-on references from the time period (Father Mulcahy from “M*A*S*H,” for instance).
The vocal performances across the board are top notch. Resnik, who carries herself like Katharine Hepburn (kind of sounds like her, too) is wonderful as the starchy head nun. As TJ, Curtis’ nephew, Charles Barksdale proves to be an apt physical comedian, and a heck of a dancer. Florrie Bagel is sweet and funny and highly enthusiastic as Sister Mary Patrick. That she reminds us of Kathy Najimi, who played that role in the movie, makes her casting all the better. Melvin Abston, as Curtis, has a low voice loaded with menace, while Chester Gregory, as Deloris’ savior “Sweaty” Eddie Souther, displays a high-wattage smile and was a fan favorite on Thursday night.
And when we first meet the sisters, they are singing. Horribly. Being that bad cannot be easy for people who are trained to be good, but they certainly pulled it off. Near the end of Act I, when Deloris encourages them to “Raise Your Voice,” the ensemble takes flight and makes some beautiful music.
Despite a strong supporting cast, this is Ta’Rea Campbell’s show. The Broadway veteran – she was Nala in “The Lion King” and in the original cast of “Book of Mormon” as an understudy – is terrific as Deloris. She brings just the right amount of oomph to her role. She’s sassy, fun-loving and the voice of a diva.
In the end, “Sister Act” wears its heart on its sleeve. And for that, we can only give thanks.
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