There’s really nothing funnier than a bunch of nuns behaving badly. A salty joke, a bawdy shoulder shrug, a whispered grievance in the quiet halls of God. Surely, at some point, something’s gotta give.
That was the idea behind the great 1992 film, “Sister Act,” which managed to make an even bigger star out of Whoopi Goldberg than she already was. In it, she played Deloris Van Cartier, a nightclub lounge singer who hides out in a rundown inner-city convent after she witnesses her no-good mobster boyfriend commit murder. As Sister Mary Clarence, she clashes with the uptight Mother Superior when she transforms the tone-deaf choir into a pew-filling, Motown-fabulous gospel group.
It has the perfect makings of a musical, and indeed, there is a lot to love in Alan Menken, Glen Slater, Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane’s stage adaptation. (Don’t worry: that looks like a lot of writers to me, too.) It’s witty, silly and rich with good tunes.
But the production currently lit up at the Lancaster Opera House, disco ball and all, struggles to make the musical’s best assets shine. I’d prefer to say that it does its best, given the company’s impressive musical productions over the years, and the show’s ultimately pleasing ending. But there are big concerns that can’t be ignored.
Director-choreographer Kevin Leary has a lot to manage here, with a busy first act full of unnecessary scenes, bonus characters and filler songs. That’s not his doing, of course. (Five writers couldn’t fix that? Five writers even allowed that?) But where he does have the power – in how those characters establish themselves, relate to each other, and prioritize their storylines for our benefit – he drops the ball.
The biggest problem is that he paints these characters almost as though they were real people, rather than caricatures as written. This is a show of cops and robbers. But they avoid every possible opportunity to go for the silly, hammy, wink-wink jugular. The show these (five) writers wrote is not this literal.
It isn’t until we get to the much-swifter second act, during a madcap chase through the convent that includes what are billed as “Fantasy Dancers,” that the company indulges its comic-book antics. It takes a long time to get there.
Similarly, many of our stars – though clearly talented – feel ill-suited for their roles. Zhanna Reed has plenty of command and a glorious voice, but her Deloris is missing a rebellious zing. To her credit she avoids what might be a tempting Whoopi-esque rendition, but it’s hard to know what kind of Deloris is her Deloris. As Curtis, her tough-guy boyfriend, Preach Freedom is simply too nice. He’s chill, not at all menacing.
Lorenzo Shawn Parnell gets it, though, as the sweetheart cop Eddie who pines over Deloris and musters up the confidence to – spoiler alert, whatever – save her life. He won over the opening night audience in no time. (Sound issues made it difficult to hear much of Deloris’ opening number and later scenes.)
And last but absolutely not least, are our gracious, hilarious, multi-talented nuns – and the nine actresses who play them. They are the stars of this show, and do a stellar job at every turn. I wish the five (way too many) writers had introduced them earlier in the first act, given them more room to develop their relationships with Deloris, some more backstory and solo work. They want to give that, and I wanted to get that.
Nuns always know what to do.
2 stars (out of four)
Through June 23 at Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30-$10. (box office, 683-1776, lancopera.org).