It’s no real secret that one of my biggest guilty pleasures in the world of musical theatre is that I ADORE Sister Act The Musical, in spite of all its past sins.
When it was playing in the West End, I went to see it at least six or seven times, and whilst I felt that the original was a little bit of ‘touring’ quality for a West End production, I was stoked to hear that the show was coming back to Manchester as it reaches the end of its 2011-2012 UK Tour, as I wasn’t back based in Manchester the first time around!
I have to say, that I felt that the touring production was my favourite incarnation of the show yet!
Yes, there are vast re-writes to the book when compared with the original West End production, but (almost) without fail (I really missed ‘How I Got The Calling’) they serve to benefit the show massively. There was noticeably more dialogue than there was in the West End production, and the script had clearly been adapted to fit this change in direction and to bulk out what they had previously treated as a superfluous ‘story’ element. These changes were made for the Broadway production, and it’s good to see that they’ve stuck by their changes.
It was great to see that the main changes to the production were to benefit the role of Mother Superior, giving her a much meatier and pivotal role in the show, than previously. As much as I love her, Sheila Hancock’s Mother Superior in the West End did absolutely nothing for me, and I never really enjoyed it. She came across as quite frail on the stage and accordingly you could sense that it felt that the director had been forced in to reigning back the role somewhat to accommodate this ‘star casting’. Last night, Denise Black was not appearing in the show (which was a pity) however I have to say that I categorically LOVED her understudy, Shirley Jameson, who (as well as looking more than a little like Mrs Patmore, from Downton Abbey) absolutely made the role fantastic and much more human, for me. You could really empathise with her situation!
Speaking of star casting, I was also very pleasantly surprised with Michael Stark, playing Monsignor O’Hara – who was a massive step up from Ian Lavender, who created the role in the West End. I felt that the role of Monsignor O’Hara had equally suffered in the West End, as Mother Superior had, and so I really commend Michael Stark for breathing a massive lease of new life in to the character – which was very welcome! The only thing that jars with his character is his accent – it’s very strange (not helped by Michael Stark being so well-known for Brookside, so you have a pre-conception of his accent before you even hear him speak!).
Cynthia Erivo manages the impossible and absolutely fills the role of Deloris Van Cartier, created on the stage, to much heralding, by Patina Miller a few years ago. I think the best way that I can commend Cynthia’s performance is to say that it easily equalled Patina’s (for which she was nominated for several awards) – you honestly wouldn’t notice any difference in sheer quality! I also loved her appearance in the ill-fated 2011 production of Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the Geilgud Theatre, London, and so I very much look forward to seeing Cynthia in future productions post Sister Act The Musical.
As something of a West End junkie/outcast, it was great for me to be able to see so many West End names in the ensemble; people who I have had the pleasure of seeing smash it through the years across London.
Julie Atherton (best known for Kate Monster in Avenue Q) appearing as Sister Mary-Robert was an absolute revelation! Again, this was another character that I disliked in the West End production, as she doesn’t half whine a lot, however Julie’s performance actually made me enjoy her stand-out song, ‘The Life I Never Led’, which has been a main loathing point of mine for many-a-year!
Cavin Cornwall, however, was ‘THE’ person that I’d wanted to see – I have loved seeing him on stage for many a year, and his deep deep voice makes me go all tingly all over! As with the other actors, he managed to take what had in the West End felt to me like a bit of a throw-away pantomime-esque role and turn it in to something rather credible – with Cavin’s portrayal of Curtis Jackson coming across as both dangerous and menacing. I could have watched two hours of just him to be honest!
As always, dear reader, I am forever being a trooper and looking out for hawt ensemble totty for your enjoyment (I know, I’m a Saint!) and in Sister Act this is, unsurprisingly, given the divine subject matter, a little bit of a challenge, but I devoutly offer you up Dean John-Wilson who provides the a nice bit of eye-candy for those not digging all the shapeless nun habits and all those vows of chastity! 😛
In terms of the staging, I felt that this touring production did a very good job in transferring what was a rather technical staging from the West End and reducing it down to a touring set. In parts, it is a little sparse, however, given what we’ve had to put up with for years in regional theatre, it’s not noticeably so, and the sets themselves are of good quality, despite all their time on the road. I was so thrilled that they managed to retain the church set and felt that it looked amazing from Row F of the stalls. I did, however, spend most of the Interval making the weird ‘blue Mary’ statue face to Max, as it did tickle me somewhat!
Costume wise, there are a perhaps fewer sparkles than previously, but you’re definitely not short-changed on them, especially when it comes to Sister Mary-Lazarus (played superbly by Jacqueline Clarke) and her gold-encrusted-bad-ass rapping! The only niggle I had with the costumes was the ‘padding’ on the Sister Mary-Patrick costume, where the underskirt filling out the hips was very noticeable and unnatural.
This next paragraph contains something of a spoiler, so skip ahead if you want to avoid all details completely – the funniest part of the night had to be at the end of the show, when the Musical Director rises from the orchestra pit and appears as the Pope – the old chap next to me shouted out ‘Jesus Christ!’ and started wildly applauding and cheering – I felt obliged to say quite loudly to him ‘no, that’s just the Pope mate’ – ha!
Come the end of the show, I was up on my feet giving an ovation /’shaking it like Mary Magdalene’, with a small tear or two to boot – the show ALWAYS does this to me! By the time they’ve reached the final number and the bows, I always feel so jubilant and uplifted that it just happens, and I am pleased that this show managed to retain that reaction from me, despite me seeing it so many times previously.
If you have a chance to see Deloris and her sisterhood of Disco-Nuns, please, I implore you to take the opportunity – you won’t regret it! Whilst the story-line is, perhaps, slightly less shaky than previously, the songs and the enjoyment you’ll take from it will make it a memorable experience for months to come.
Sister Act The Musical is currently touring the UK. For more information and for tickets, please visit their official website.
The show by my watch runs for 2 hours, 40 minutes, inclusive of interval. On a 19:30 start, you seem to get out around 22:10.