It’s been a season of ill-conceived or just plain disappointing stage musicals based on movies: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Catch Me if You Can. Who’d have guessed that the latest iteration of Broadway’s recycling trend, Sister Act, based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg hit, would be such a lark? It helps that the show boasts a genuine star turn by newcomer Patina Miller as aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier, who goes undercover as Sister Mary Clarence after witnessing a Mob hit. The American-born actress, who originated the stage role in London in 2009, is blessed with a megawatt personality, terrific comic timing, and a heaven-sent soprano.
She’s assisted by a delightful, mostly female cast, including Tony winner Victoria Clark as the stern Mother Superior, Sarah Bolt as plus-size Sister Patrick, Marla Mindelle as mousy Sister Robert, and Audrey Neenan as scene-stealing Sister Lazarus — who even busts out a rap number by the final curtain. Aside from Demond Green, as the spiritedly fey nephew of the head mobster (”Whatever I have skips a generation,” he quips), the show’s handful of male leads fail to make much of an impression. But this is a production that is driven by the power of sisterhood, and the onstage nuns are more than happy to oblige.
While Sister Act relies on all-new music, thankfully the score is by gifted tunesmith Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast) and his longtime lyricist, Glenn Slater. There are some real melodic standouts here, boosted by the decision to re-set the show in 1977 Philadelphia. While the charming ”It’s Good to Be a Nun” is a more old-fashioned Broadway number, tunes like ”Raise Your Voice” and the first-act closer ”Take Me to Heaven” suggest an early-disco, ’70s R&B vibe that manages to feel fresh.
The straightforward but laugh-filled script, by Cheri and Bill Stienkellner with a polish from Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed), retains the basic core of the familiar story while still providing plenty of clever new punchlines. The production boasts some impressive sets (by Klara Zieglerova) and costumes (by Lez Brotherston); the latter occasionally out-sequin the designs in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The weakest element may be Anthony Van Laast’s strictly serviceable choreography. If you want flying nuns (or even high-kicking ones), you’ll have to look elsewhere.
You need look no further than Patina Miller, a natural and dynamic performer who proves there’s a genuine virtue in the old phrase ”force of habit.” Even when she’s tamed her curly ‘do behind a long black robe and veil, she brings an irresistible energy to this crowd-pleasing show. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 2800-432-7250)