Bless this show, bless this review, bless it all.
A wannabe nightclub singer, Deloris Van Cartier, witnesses her married, mobster lover murder one of his subordinates in Sister Act A Divine Musical Comedy. In exchange for agreeing to testify, the police hide her in a struggling convent, posing as a nun, and passing her days as the new choir mistress.
I'll begin by declaring an interest - the original Sister Act movie is my favourite film. This is also the third time I've seen this musical (in different productions - Kilworth House Theatre, Wigston Amateur Operatic Society, and now Curve), and the second time this year.
As a show, it's not my favourite - mainly because it's not the film.
Let's air my woes before I move on to why I gave this performance a four-star review.
How Sister Act is different from the film
The original film is set in early 90s Nevada/California; the musical moves it to 70s Philadelphia. I've always thought this was a shame, as it means soul and Motown dominate Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's soundtrack (don't get me wrong, I love soul and Motown music; I was very briefly in a soul band - don't ask...), with every character singing in that style. Consequently, I've always found this score a touch one note.
By leaving it in the 90s, Deloris could keep her love for classic Motown as her signature style, while leaving room for hip-hop (the local community), opera (Mother Superior), hymns and gospel (the nuns - aside from the choir under Deloris' influence), doo-wop (the mobsters), and more, adding greater variety.
When I teach improvisation workshops, I always say that nothing elevates a good story like a good laugh or a good romance. Unfortunately, I don't think either work in this musical. The film was funny because it was never played for laughs - it's quite dry, and all the more charming for it. Here, the jokes are played as jokes, and fall flat as secular audiences don't pick up on references to Barabbas or "this must be how protestants feel".
In the movie's scene where Deloris leads grace before a meal, Whoopi Goldberg plays it with awkwardness; she's grasping for any vaguely religious phrase she can think of, to cover for the fact that she doesn't know the Lord's Prayer. In the musical, she "recites" the same prayer, but with a brash overconfidence, as though convinced she's right. It makes for a very different, less funny scene.
And the introduction of a romantic subplot between Deloris and police officer Eddie is entirely unnecessary, and - frankly - inappropriate, considering he's meant to be her protector. In the movie, the love story is between Deloris and the nuns - initially hesitant to accept their kindness or way of life, she eventually finds her place, and comes to love the sisters. I like the simplicity of that story. It doesn't need a heteronormative romance to make it more engaging.
However, with all that said, and setting aside my bias for the film - this is a fantastic production.
The show - as it exists - is executed brilliantly, and has undergone a few changes from the previous versions I've seen. The police officer's nickname "Sweaty Eddie" has now become "Steady Eddie" making for a more credible good guy, and the show now opens with Mother Superior, rather than Deloris in her nightclub (possibly done to get star name Lesley Joseph on stage sooner?).
Bill Buckhurst's direction keeps the focus on character, with several given their moment in the spotlight (literally, singing direct to the audience). This creates a greater contrast for the group numbers, allowing Alistair David's choreography to pack additional punch when the full company is on stage.
Even in one of the more delicate songs - "Bless Our Show" (pictured above) - with all the nuns gathered around Deloris' bed, it's staged beautifully, making for my favourite number from the show.
Sandra Marvin makes for a supremely charismatic Deloris Van Cartier, nailing the heartfelt moments, and larger-than-life in the comedy. Her vocals are astounding, effortlessly hitting her top notes, transitioning straight into her next scene without stopping to catch her breath.
Lesley Joseph's performance as Mother Superior fascinated me. Maggie Smith played the part with a genteel, pearl-clutching energy, emphasising Deloris as a fish-out-of-water. Joseph's performance has a sharper edge - as though she's personally insulted by Deloris' mere existence - making for a more combative dynamic between the two leads.
It's a different take on the character and one that slightly dulls the impact of her eventual acceptance of Deloris. Yet Joseph is brilliant, and comfortably lands the show's biggest laugh, ahead of her song "I Haven't Got A Prayer".
Jeremy Secomb makes for an effective villain as mob leader Curtis Jackson (although he appears to have stolen Beetlejuice's suit), though doesn't quite have the brooding menace of Harvey Keitel (who does?). This interpretation of the part calls for more of a pantomime baddie, and Secomb nails this without ever getting too silly.
But this is an ensemble piece, and the nuns hold the charm. Among them, Lizzie Bea dazzles as Sister Mary Robert. Like Marvin, her vocal range is mind-blowing and seemingly effortless. Anne Smith is clearly having fun as Sister Mary Lazarus, and there are laughs from Catherine Millsom as Sister Mary Patrick (though the character's role is massively reduced from the movie version, which is a shame).
I really loved the set for this adaptation, with the circular motif reminiscent of the Hollywood Bowl. Initially, parts of it are boarded up to show the church's dilapidation, with these damages being repaired throughout the show as Deloris' influence leads to more fundraising.
The lighting is also clever, with simple tricks used to create the illusion of passing taxis, day break, and the contrast between church-life and the seedy nightclub underworld.
I've complained in previous reviews of Curve shows about the orchestra drowning out the singers, so it would be remiss of me not to mention that the sound mixing on this show was flawless! A wonderful improvement that allowed me to fully immerse myself in the show.
Overall, it makes for a very enjoyable evening, and if you've never seen the show, you won't be disappointed. If you're a devotee of the movie, just know that this isn't that.