Readers who only recently entered the EIKILFM fold could be forgiven for thinking that I hate everything. True, many of my recent reviews have been negative, to say the least: The People in the Picture, Baby It's You, Wonderland, Catch Me If You Can. And now with Sister Act, which opened two weeks back at the Broadway Theatre, I find that the season has put me in an awkward position: I'm running out of ways to say "this musical was bad."
In my defense, there were actually quite a few musical productions this season that I genuinely liked or even loved: The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Book of Mormon, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Anything Goes.
I'm a victim of circumstance, dear reader. Can I help it if starry-eyed producers insist on dragging mediocre (or worse) shows to Broadway? True, the lead producer in this case is more starry than starry-eyed: Whoopi Goldberg. And, in truth, Sister Act isn't bad, but it is definitely mediocre.
Word from the London production of Sister Act was that the show was a crowd-pleaser, but that the book, from television veterans but Broadway neophytes Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, was bland and jokey. So the producers brought in Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu, The Little Dog Laughed) to punch up the script, and the result is bland and jokey. There were only a few times when I felt the DCB influence, including a few references to bachelor antique dealers, but they tended to stand out rather than blend with the rest of the book.
But if the jokes don't work, the story actually does, as anyone who's seen the 1992 film can attest. The songs are another story entirely. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater have done a terrific job of recreating the feel of bland 1970s disco, and therein lies the trouble. The score is almost entirely unmemorable, except for "Take Me to Heaven," but only because we hear that song repeatedly throughout the show. Slater's lyrics here run toward the "nothing matters more than love/gift from up above" school of predictable rhyme schemes.
A number of the songs reflect some genuinely questionable choices on the part of the creators, but it's not entirely clear who's to blame. I guess it ultimately falls on the lap of director Jerry Zaks, but someone with a voice of authority should have stepped in at some point and questioned the chorus of dancing homeless people backing up poor Chester Gregory during "I Could Be That Guy." (Also, the song was placed far too low in Gregory's range for him to sing it effectively. Was there no one available to transpose?) Another jaw-dropper was "Lady in the Long Black Dress," in which a trio of mob henchmen unctuously evoke Barry White as they sing of their plans to romance the nuns into doing their bidding. Um...ew.
As I sat watching the show, I made note of how awkward and amateurish the musical staging was, but I couldn't recall who the choreographer was. At intermission, I checked the Playbill: it was my old friend Anthony Van Laast, who perpetrated what can only charitably be called choreography for Mamma Mia, both the stage and movie versions. Why is this man still getting work on the professional stage? His motto seems to be, "when in doubt, indicate." Every line of every song, it seems, needs a pointlessly intricate foot placement or a painfully obvious gesture. The lyric talks about driving? Why, use your hands to mime a steering wheel, of course.
There's been a lot of talk about the "star-making" lead performance by Patina Miller in the Whoopi Goldberg role, and I found her professional, to be sure, but otherwise unremarkable. I was thankful for the presence of a pair of old pros to lend the proceedings a shred of dignity: Victoria Clark as Mother Superior and Fred Applegate as Monsignor O'Hara, both of whom shine out in whatever they do, regardless of the material.
On the positive side, after 16 years of Catholic education, I can't help smiling at the sight of nuns grooving to the beat. And the show is certainly visually impressive, with its glitzy scenic design by Klara Zieglerova, and subtle-as-a-sledge-hammer costumes by Lez Brotherston. Sister Act is likely to replicate its crowd-pleasing feat on this side of the Atlantic. I'm confident that the show will find an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. Just don't expect to find me among the faithful.