Broadway By the Bay closes out the summer with another crowd-pleasing musical comedy — one with "mass appeal," you (and the show's writers) might say. "Sister Act," based on the now-classic 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name, may have some hackneyed elements but it also has plenty of high-energy tunes by the powerhouse team of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater and another round of excellent performances and production values from the BBB crew.
While the movie takes place in San Francisco in the 1990s, the musical sets the scene in Philadelphia in the late 1970s, where Deloris Van Cartier (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman) is a wisecracking singer and wannabe disco queen in search of her big break. When she witnesses her villainous gangster boyfriend Curtis (Montel Anthony Nord) offing a stool pigeon and agrees to testify against him, police officer, former high-school classmate and love interest Eddie Souther (David Blackburn) sends her temporarily into hiding under the protection of the Queen of Angels church and convent, presuming Curtis and his goons will never find her there. The old-fashioned Mother Superior (Heather Orth) is none too keen on harboring sinner Deloris, and Deloris is similarly unimpressed with her new spartan and cloistered circumstances. She's living under the guise of "Sister Mary Clarence," a transfer from a "more progressive" order, and the other nuns, including perky Mary Patrick (Melissa Costa), shy postulant Mary Robert (Kate Byrd) and dryly humorous Mary Lazarus (Linda Piccone), are curious about the newcomer in their long-stagnant midst.
While Deloris is running from her troubles, Queen of Angels is in trouble of its own. Mass attendance has dropped to nearly nil and the diocese is about to sell the church to a "pair of bachelors who deal in antiques." Mother Superior longs to save her sanctuary but is also uninterested in change, preferring to take refuge within its walls rather than try to connect with the outside world. She sends Deloris to take part in the church's terrible choir, figuring that will keep her out of the way. Deloris, though, finds she's able to bring out the best in the earnest sisters by teaching them to sing with not only skill but also joy and spirit. Soon they've gone from laughing stocks to soul sensations and it attracts attention (including from the Pope his holy self). The church's pews and coffers start to fill back up, much to Mother Superior's conflicted chagrin, as she hardly considers the nuns' new sparkly get-ups and booty-shaking moves appropriate (you might say she considers them bad ... habits). Meanwhile, the nuns' new fame means Deloris is not as incognito as she ought to be.
There are plot points that don't make a whole lot of sense and others that are pretty predictable but "Sister Act" is entertaining and appealing, and makes the move from screen to stage easily and successfully. The book, by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, if corny, is quippy and goofily fun. Menken, a big name in show tunes and Disney soundtracks, creates some very good Philly-soul and tunes, including "Take Me to Heaven," and Glenn Slater must have had fun writing Catholic-referencing, period-pastiche lyrics for numbers such as "Sunday Morning Fever."
The bumbling bad guys get several humorous songs, including Curtis' twisted "When I Find My Baby." Nord's understated performance stands in contrast to his more buffoonish minions (played by Jesse Cortez, Evan Joelle and Anthony Maglio), who also get a comic song ("Lady in the Long Black Dress"). Sister Mary Robert gets the full Menken Disney princess "I Want" song treatment with "The Life I Never Led" and there is also that trusty (or dusty) old comedy trope of a rapping senior citizen. Things go a bit over-the-top schmaltzy when Deloris gets into the "Sister Act" title number but Ivy-Louthaman is a pleasure to hear, so all is forgiven. In fact, everyone's a pleasure to hear (music and vocal direction by Nicolas Perez) and watch (direction by Erica Wyman-Abrahamson; choreography by Riette Burdick). The orchestra sounds fantastic and funky, with some standout percussion by Greg Messa and a pleasing horn section Despite a few very minor wardrobe snafus opening night, costumes by Bethany Deal are suitable and Blackburn's Eddie gets some especially nifty costume moments during his big number, "I Could Be That Guy." Mark Mendelson's set and Michael Oesch's lighting capture both disco dance party and sacred stained-glass chapel.
While the individual performances are good, where "Sister Act" really shines is, fittingly, when the sisters all sing and move together in big group harmony, whether it be in classical or pop style. A joyful noise indeed.
What: "Sister Act."
Where: Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Through Aug. 25; click link below for schedule.
Cost: Tickets vary depending on seat and performance. Click link below for individual prices.