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Theater Review: “Sister Act” at the Kennedy Center

A handful of performers shine in this corny and predictable musical.

The cast of Sister Act, at the Kennedy Center through November 10. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

Sister Act is a deeply mediocre musical—corny, predictable, and broadly performed. There’s no getting around that. The only way to enjoy it is to sit back, relax, and view it on its own terms. The audience at last week’s press opening in the Kennedy Center Opera House did just that, and it worked for them.

There are a few performances to savor in this energetic touring company, but you have to suss them out amid the overamplified din, cheesy scenery, and actors who were presumably directed to play it as over-the-top as possible.

Sister Act premiered on Broadway in 2011, inspired by the 1992 film comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg (who is one of this show’s producers) as past-her-prime lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Ta’Rea Campbell). First we see Deloris auditioning with her backup singers (Gisela Adisa and Mary Searcy) at a club owned by her gangster boyfriend Curtis (Melvin Abston). Later she accidentally sees Curtis kill someone. Knowing what he’s like, she runs. A shy cop named Eddie (Chester Gregory), a high school acquaintance of Deloris’s, convinces her to hide out in a convent where she can temporarily take the veil so she can eventually testify against Curtis. The flamboyant Deloris has trouble adapting to convent life and the tight ship run by the stern Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik). Assigned to help the convent’s comically sour, lackluster choir, Deloris quickly turns them into a soulful, rockin’ ensemble. They become famous, which is not good for Deloris’s safety.

Unlike the film, which was set mostly in San Francisco, the stage show takes place in Philadelphia, circa 1978, on the tough side of town. This allows for musical and visual nods to the synchronized moves and sparkly clothes of the girl and guy groups of that era or just before it, along with the advent of disco. Anthony Van Laast’s choreography and Lez Brotherston’s costume designs are amusing in the way they echo those times, but they play it pretty safe, satire-wise.

Alan Menken’s music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics do echo, or at least mimic, the sounds of R&B, disco, and soul, all performed at great volume by the cast and a pit band led by Brent-Alan Huffman. The script by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (who wrote and produced the TV series Cheers) fires off jokes with, it must be said, sitcom-like regularity, and director Jerry Zaks has the cast deliver them with a collective blunderbuss. (The only thing missing is a rimshot after every punch line.) The set (designed by Klara Zieglerova) seems to have been pared down to a series of flats, most merely serviceable. But the church sanctuary looks like something out of a horror film, with looming “walls” of stained-glass windows angled inward and an enormous sculpture of the Virgin Mary, which seems to change demeanor as the choir gets glitzier.

As Deloris, the Broadway-honed Ta’Rea Campbell cuts a tough-yet-glamorous figure, belts her numbers with energy and style, and is convincing in conveying Deloris’s ambition. But it seemed to this reviewer that she played to the audience more than she interacted with the other characters onstage—mugging, really, and thus muting her character’s emotions.

Now we move from caveats to praise: As the acerbic Mother Superior, Hollis Resnik makes her lines sound as though George Bernard Shaw wrote them—no small feat in a show like this. And she sings in an appropriately husky-operatic voice. Also deserving of a salute is Richard Pruitt as Monsignor O’Hara, the priest who’s far more willing to accept Deloris’s souped-up choir in order to save their old church. When he introduces the choir at mass, he sounds like an FM deejay.

Florrie Bagel has gone national, but she comes from the Washington theater scene and makes great comic hay out of her role as Sister Mary Patrick (originated by Kathy Najimy in the film), the bumptious nun who finds an outlet for her personality singing with the fearless Deloris. She’s a treat to watch, even when she’s doing nothing.

Ashley Moniz as Sister Mary Robert, a timid novice nun, beautifully sells her character and her anthem “The Life I Never Led,” voicing her yearnings to see more of life. And as shy cop Eddie, Gregory does a fine job recalling the unrequited crush he had and still has on Deloris and his humiliating teen years as “Sweaty Eddie.” In his anthem “I Could Be That Guy”—everyone has an anthem in a show like this—he imagines himself as a smooth soul crooner. His instant costume switch from cop uniform to white linen sexiness is magical and fun.

Yet a list of good performers creating nice moments in a mediocre show that mostly hits an audience over the head isn’t quite enough, is it?

Sister Act is at the Kennedy Center through November 10. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($39 to $125) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website.