Born from the Whoopie Goldberg film of the same name, this musical is a ballsy, rollicking joyride from start to finish. With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, Sister Act tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier (Landi Oshinowo), a nightclub singer with dreams of fame, fortune and a white fox fur, who goes into hiding after witnessing a gangster killing in Philadelphia. She enlists the help of her old school friend Steady Eddie Souther (Alfie Parker), a Philly cop, who arranges for her to lie low in a local convent until the trial is over. World weary Mother Superior (Lesley Joseph) is less than happy about this arrangement but puts Deloris in charge of the choir, which certainly needs some knocking into shape. Not only does Deloris teach the nuns to sing in tune; they learn to rattle the rafters, belting out gospel rock songs with all the joy and gay abandon of naughty schoolgirls. Such is their appeal that church congregations swell, as does the renovation fund and they are invited to perform for the Pope, briefly and rather mischievously portrayed by musical director Neil MacDonald.
After a twenty minute late start for an unspecified technical reason, the curtain opened to Morgan Large’s brightly lit set of circular colour changing arches. The simple design morphed easily from seedy nightclub to alley way, police station, and with the addition of a broken stained glass window, looked particularly good as the run down convent in desperate need of renovation. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design cleverly created the mood changes with the colours of the arches, although it seemed to me that down stage left was in permanent shadow which was disappointing when there was action taking place in that area. But this is nitpicking, because the energy and sheer enthusiasm of the performers kept the audience captivated and charmed throughout.
Oshinowo in the lead role, has an impressive vocal range, a beautiful tone and really belts out the songs. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but Lesley Joseph has a pretty good singing voice too and her dead pan delivery of some wonderful one-liners provided a lot of the laughs. Ian Gareth-Jones played Curtis Jackson, the gangster you love to boo, and Bradley Judge, Damien Buhagiar and Callum Martin were his three silly and inept sidekicks. Judge was particularly watchable and put much madcap energy into behaving like a goofy schoolboy, more prankster than gangster. In the ensemble of nuns Isabel Canning as Sister Mary Patrick and Lizzie Bea as Sister Mary Robert stood out, with Canning showing a naughty relish in the sinful excitement Deloris brought to the convent. Sister Mary Robert was more reticent and shy to embrace the new musical repertoire, but when she found her voice – boy, we heard it! Bea gave us a confident and powerful performance showcasing an impressive musical talent. If it were not for the quality of the whole company, it is possible that Alfie Parker could have stolen the show. Appearing as the chubby, somewhat sheepish cop, his performance gave us everything from pathos to razzamatazz and a most beautiful melodic voice.
Sister Act played at a cracking pace bringing the audience with them all the way. The company spoke with American accents, as was necessary for the narrative, which seemed authentic enough to be convincing. There is colour, movement, some wonderful characterisation, good songs expertly sung, lively orchestration – it’s got the lot! A perfect example of what a feel-good musical should be like.
Sister Act plays at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre from October 2nd – 7th.
Reviewed: 3rd October 2023
North West End UK Rating: