Sister Act held its gala night at The Theatre, Solaire on June 29. The touring version of the Broadway musical based on the 1992 comedy hit movie was made possible locally by Ovation Productions, Troika Entertainment, and Broadway Entertainment Group.
It is Ovation Productions’ second foray into Broadway musical theatre, following 2015’s Disney’s Beauty and The Beast.
The storyline of Sister Act is nearly the same as the movie: aspiring disco diva Delores “Van Cartier” Carter (originally played by Whoopi Goldberg who is in the musical’s producer chair) witnesses a murder and is forced to hide in a Catholic convent as a nun.
However, the musical is set in 1977-78– the height of the disco era– and none of the cover songs which helped push the original’s comic narrative are featured; no “I Will Follow Him” and the like. Instead, it has an original score by none other than Alan Menken (Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin) with lyrics by Glenn Slater (Tangled, The Little Mermaid).
When Mother Superior sings “Here Within These Walls” in Act One, you just know and feel you’re in Menken-land: instantly memorable melodies and elegant modulations.
The production is visually stunning with a huge Virgin Mary as the centrepiece that, by the show’s climax in Act Two, was rotated to reveal a mirror-festooned side: an imposing mirror-ball Mary. (check the photo gallery below)
The show is obviously heavily informed by Catholic iconography but its message is universal. Rebecca Mason-Wygal, a non-Catholic playing Mother Superior, explains: “I think the Catholic structure the show has built draws people into it. Obviously we have a huge audience base that is religious but we also want to include those who may be of different faiths or no faith or wherever they stand. Our show brings a message in inclusiveness… [what our characters] try to come to in the end is an understanding of each other.”
Mason-Wygal also gushed about seeing Lea Salonga onstage many years ago and counts the Tony-winning Miss Saigon/Les Miserables star as “an inspiration in my career. I just love her.”
The off-stage shy and soft-spoken Dené Hill transforms miraculously into the sassy Deloris Van Cartier; her astounding vocal work ranges from operatic high notes (she is an opera singer by trade and admits, surprisingly, that musical theatre is still new to her) to saucy soulful melismas. Her chemistry with Rebecca Mason-Wygal’s reserved and uptight Mother Superior is palpable. Mason-Wygal herself has a clear and expressive range, shifting effortlessly from speech to melody and back, generally calm and sublime, albeit with a brief hilarious moment of growled rage on “Haven’t Got A Prayer.”
Another standout in the ensemble is Sophie Kim. She plays the delicate Sister Mary Robert and her voice is anything but: her nuanced yet powerful spot in “The Life I Never Led” led the audience into applause even before her last stratospheric note was done.
On a technical level, there were a few minor opening night issues. For one, the live bass guitar and live drums were barely audible through the PA system and lessened the aural impact of the show’s gaudy disco moments: this is set in 1977-78, after all, a period of ‘more is more.’ Besides, there are soul and Motown-inspired elements in the songs; a pronounced backbeat is necessary. This underwhelming sonic contrast between the saucy and the sublime did not quite match with the witty script and the bright sets, although during the most “traditionally” Broadway moments, the necessary space and subtlety were there. Some of the punchlines elicited laughs but lacked the punch; a touch more comedic timing would go a long way.
Hill, Mason-Wygal, and Kim were easily on top of their game; the rest of the ensemble, a bit less so. Perhaps they were still exhausted from the preceding month-long stint in Singapore: after the show, a Filipino crew member explained that the cast arrived on the day of the gala.
You could say they hit the ground, well, nunning.
This is not to say that the Sister Act gala performance did not deliver its promise of a feel-good experience. And they class-landed. The costumes are impeccable, and the choreography runs the gamut from Motown-inspired girl/boy group moves (hilariously delivered by Brandon “Curtis Jackson” Godfrey, Harry “Joey” McEnerny V, Moses “Pablo” Bernal, and Jarred “TJ” Bedgood), deliberately cheesy Travolta-isms (Will “Sweaty Eddie” Travis), to the grand sweeping ensemble finale. The production team brought every piece of gear necessary for the tour: five container vans filled with everything from the smallest props to rack-mounted wireless systems to the non-collapsible Virgin Mary that is shipped with its own equally huge storage case.
As most of the cast are musical theatre tour-savvy, their technical vocal skills show even during moments when their characters were not supposed to have much. For example, during the scenes where the nuns were supposed to comically sing out-of-tune, the actors were singing dissonantly but in parallel. The effect was more aleatoric than cacophonic, like a free-jazz vocal ensemble as opposed to a tone-deaf collection of amateurs (which their characters supposedly were).
And when they do eventually hit the consonant harmonies, the effect was simply, well, glorious and soul-stirring. And yes, it was always good fun.
Dené says that, “I really want people to take away from the show that nothing matters more than love and that is one of the lines of the show and we [should] stay that way. There’s so much divisiveness in the world today, there is terrorism [and] this pushing out of people who are considered not accepted in our society based on race, culture, look, [and] of any kind. This show is about accepting everybody no matter where they come [from], how much money they have, what race, religion they are; we say nothing matters more than love. And if you understand that, then it will be alright.”
Sister Act‘s two week nun run at The Theatre, Solaire is on the following dates: July 1 and 2 (2pm and 8pm); July 4,5, 6, and 7 (8pm); and July 8 and 9 (2pm and 8pm).