The setup: The 1992 film Sister Act was the perfect storm of Motown girl-group revival, a dream cast including Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, and Kathy Najimy, and a feel-good story that made Catholics and the sketchy denizens of Reno, Nevada, both seem a bit nicer than they probably are. It was the first and maybe even still the best in a long line of movies in which people find they can save their choir, their church, their very lives by singing louder and updating their moves a bit.
When the stage musical version was created 14 years later, powerhouse composer Alan Menken came up with all-new numbers that bow-chicka-bow in a smooth, R&B-gets-it-on-with-disco niche. Moving the action back to the 1970s in funky Philly, the show sensibly worked itself out through a few regional runs and London's West End before shaking up Broadway two seasons ago. Now we get to enjoy the North American tour at ASU Tempe's Gammage Auditorium.
See also: La Cage aux Folles from Phoenix Theatre Tastes as Good as It Looks Billy Elliot the Musical Wows on National Tour Stopping at Gammage Curtains: A Christmas Carol at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria
The execution: There's this thing about rock musicals at Gammage -- if you're sitting in or underneath the balcony, lyrics are hard to make out. The relative mellowness of Sister Act's instrumental score, and the comforting presence of actual dialogue, is a big help, but if you want to appreciate the subtle cleverness of Glenn Slater's "When I Find My Baby [I Will Do Terrible Things to Keep Her from Testifying]," "It's Good to Be a Nun," or "Lady in the Long Black Dress," for example, you might need to buy the soundtrack or do some heavy Googling for bons mots like these, sung by criminal henchmen who are considering seducing nuns (not because it sounds like kinky fun, but just so they can get some work done):
I'm a virtuoso!
And lf I'm just so-so . . .
. . .frankly, you won't know, so -
You would think that relentless energy would be a given in a professional touring musical, but the level of good-natured frenzy in this cast is somewhat remarkable, nevertheless. Not a lot happens, which is fine with me (plot is my bugbear -- I've seen the Julianne Moore Hannibal film twice and still don't really get it), yet I spent most of the evening in eager anticipation of whatever perfectly straightforward development was next on the agenda.
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The scenic designs for the convent and church are amazing -- translucent, perspective-paneled paintings of arches and corridors quietly reveal over and over behind the action and bring a lot of depth to scenes in which, necessarily, everyone's wearing pretty much the same thing. The rest of the settings are actually rather crappy, and while that's mysterious (it might have something to do with the requirements of touring truckloads of stuff that will fit into venues with varying resources), it's usually overcome by fine performances. The verdict: This Sister Act is fun, well-executed, and worthy of your attention.