Sister Act: disco is next to godliness.
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Seanna Kennedy
Gospel + sex + a solid four-on-the-floor beat = disco. Nuns + sex + dancing = comedy. A mediocre movie script + disco-esque music = Sister Act. And the only way to make any of it work is to revel in the camp and sing to high heaven as if your very soul depends on it.
The Lower Ossington Theatre may not raise the roof with their production of Sister Act, but there wasn't an audience member who didn't leave with a smile on their face and a jump in their step. The first half of the first act is a real concern, with the cast struggling to pump life into flat songs, awkward exposition and characters that broadcast their impending plot twists from the first moment they appear. Even if you haven't seen the film or the musical before, it is blatantly obvious what is going to happen with the plot, the characters and the emotional manipulation.
There is a glimmer of hope when Steven Vlahos tackles the one witty and daring song, "When I Find My Baby," with crack comic timing but just not enough vocal power or menace. Kiyoya Amoah has the moves, the costumes (a great double reveal) and a stunning falsetto to rightfully claim that "I Could Be That Guy," but it still falls a prayer short of bliss. Then, suddenly, a miracle! Lead Amaka Umeh (Jesus Christ Superstar) hits her stride and lets her voice loose, focuses her expressive eyes, and the fidgety telegraphing mannerisms turn into fluid endearing comedy.
She exhorts the choir of off-key and daffily repressed nuns to "Raise Your Voice." And they do. And it is glorious. It is the first memorable song - three simple notes but they stick - and the cast's relief is palpable: this they can sell. From there on in Sister Act never lets up and is close to divine.
Amy Holden and Autumn-Joy Dames apply powerful voices and sheer force of will to turn their numbers into showstoppers. Ed Robinson dives into macho disco clichés to deliver a tour de force seduction number that is hilarious and sizzles. And watching nuns shake their groove thangs never gets old, particularly the charming Catherine Wylee who's posterior has a lively life that a habit can't contain. Having previously been reduced to comic relief with jokes that never quite land, Luiz Monterei (West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and Brian Gibson reappear in sleeveless barely there glittery shirts to sing, dance and radiate joy and sex appeal.
Umeh tops them all with her 11 o'clock number, singing of her desire for stardom with a bravado that claims the spotlight. A spotlight that she never lets slip out of her grasp again, even with those conniving full-voiced nuns belting behind her. Umeh's Deloris may never be the star she craves to be but then Sister Act will never, no matter how dedicated the performances, be more than a mindless entertainment.
Holden's Mother Superior sings of the sacrilege of glitter, outfits that are barely there, drag queens (except in a throwaway gag that fortunately ends well) and other grit and glory that she and her church are being subjected to, but, sadly, we never see it nor does it register as a real threat. Neither does the monolithic weight of Catholic tradition and a vengeful God in the other direction. The audience is never clued in as to why Deloris would settle for Amoah's Sweaty Eddie other than it is convention for a heterosexual bonding of the leads. But then we've never been shown why the gangster Vlahos appealed. And of course the curiosity about the nuns' intimacies, and Deloris' sudden embrace of sisterhood, leads to prurient thoughts that get in the way of just clapping along. (Note: LOT is billing this as "Based on the Family Film") That is a lot of dangling threads that the musical numbers have to paper over.
A bit more grit, a bit more camp and a firmer grip on the opening numbers would make this Sister Act deeper and more intriguing. And a teasing out of the theme that singing gospel is at its heart a very sexual act akin to disco dancing, would give Deloris' ambitions some heft. But when LOT provides some great performances + energy + enthusiasm + a driving beat, it = a very near-religious + a happily shallow night at the theatre. And I'm still singing "Raise your voice" sotto voce...