Midway through Act One of Sister Act, the ingratiating musical that is currently on view at the Fox Theatre, a shy police officer named Eddie Souther (Chester Gregory, reprising the role he created on Broadway) imagines what it might be like if he were as cool as Tony Manero, the disco-dancing dynamo portrayed by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. In the batting of an eyelash, Eddie's basic blue uniform vanishes, and fantasy becomes reality. Or perhaps reality becomes fantasy. Whatever is going on, it occurs with surprising dexterity and is very clever indeed. Eddie's "how'd they do that?" costume change is as effective as anything you're going see (or hear) all night long. Thanks to unexpected moments like this one, the show charms. If you can't have a good time at Sister Act, you're not trying.
Chances are that you already know the plot. The popular 1992 movie upon which this musical is based has grossed in the neighborhood of $230 million worldwide. In the film Whoopi Goldberg portrays Deloris Van Cartier, a Reno lounge singer who must hide out in a San Francisco convent disguised as a nun after witnessing a gangland murder. As Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris takes over the feeble choir and lives are impacted, including her own. This stage version has changed the locale to 1970s Philadelphia, but the general arc of the story is the same.
Deloris is portrayed with assurance, aplomb and a killer smile by Ta'Rea Campbell. As the conservative Mother Superior who resists Deloris' willful ways, Hollis Resnik is masterful. From the moment Resnik first enters twirling the sleeves of her habit as if they were a pair of maracas, this actress commands the stage. Her number in Act Two, "Haven't Got a Prayer," could be renamed "A Life in the Theater," because Resnik's performance is the culmination of a lifetime of having honed the tricks of her trade: timing, simplicity, focus. Although the strict Mother Superior is an entertaining foil to the free-spirited Deloris, during those rare occasions when Campbell and Resnik support each other, their combined energy provides a power surge that suffuses the stage with a nigh-holy glow.
But here's the thing. Although the original Sister Act benefited from the chemistry of the irrepressible Whoopi and the brittle Maggie Smith as Mother Superior (not to mention a string of acerbic one-liners hurled by St. Louis' own Mary Wickes), this otherwise formulaic movie was made special by the way it redeployed already-familiar pop songs like "My Guy" and "I Will Follow Him" into songs of faith. Alas, none of the songs from the film are included in this stage adaptation. Those popular standards have been replaced. In their stead we hear a new score from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater (who has concocted some clever rhymes indeed). But because the Menken-Slater tunes are unfamiliar to us, that original concept of reinvigorating popular song — which was the axis upon which the movie turned — has been lost.
Instead we are treated to rousing, shake-the-rafters choral numbers that entertained Broadway audiences for a year and a half and which surely will delight Fox Theatre audience during the current St. Louis run. But we cannot respond as we responded to the musical numbers in the movie, simply because these songs are not already part of our fiber. Anyone who attends this stage adaptation of Sister Act should have a high time, because the easygoing fun is contagious, and the laughs are bountiful. But it's a different kind of fun than you had with Whoopi, Maggie and the singing nuns at St. Katherine's. Here we get more choreography but less soul.