SISTER ACT at Bristol Hippodrome

Sister Act may not be destined to join the ranks of the very greatest musicals, but it has a growing number of faithful devotees.  Last night at the Hippodrome there were some in the audience in full nun’s regalia – the habit is catching on – and the show received a standing ovation. Wherein lies its popularity? Alan Menken’s disco-inflected score is pleasant enough, but it does not reach the heights he attained with Beauty And The Beast.

Adapted from the original Whoopi Goldberg movie, the plot is both predictable and implausible, and the dialogue, though serviceable, serves up too few laugh-out-loud moments. But whatever its relative weaknesses, Sister Act is blessed with a dazzling, roof-raising star performance from Alexandra Burke. She plays Deloris Van Cartier, a Philadelphia nightclub singer who sees her small-time gangster boyfriend Curtis shoot a police informer dead.  Eddie, a soft-hearted policeman who has long carried a torch for Deloris, arranges a witness-protection scheme that involves her hiding in a convent.  The nuns themselves are in peril as they are faced with financial ruin, but Deloris turns their tone-deaf choir into a money-making media sensation, thereby blowing her cover.  All ends well as Eddie comes to the rescue and the nuns get to sing for the Pope.

Director/choreographer Craig Revel Horwood has created a family-friendly show designed to appeal to the widest possible age-range.  All well and good, but his broad-brush approach is at times a little too close to Christmas pantomime in style.  As the sleazy Curtis, Aaron Lee Lambert brings some welcome menace to proceedings, but his three henchmen are far too clownish for any sense of danger to be sustained for long.  The culture-clash between the earthiness of street-wise Deloris and the piety of the nuns gives rise a truly funny moment when Deloris reveals a very shaky knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer, but the nuns themselves are portrayed as such a noisy bunch of eccentrics that there is little sense that Deloris has entered a world of quiet contemplation. As most of the multi-talented cast are on-stage musicians we see nuns who expertly wield saxophones, clarinets and flutes, so the idea that they were ever incompetent musically is hard to swallow.  Their dreadful caterwauling is so extreme that it is also rather difficult to believe that Deloris could so quickly endow them with the voices of angels.  However, Ms Burke brings such energy and conviction to her role that one is tempted to believe she could achieve whatever miracle took her fancy.

It is de rigueur these days for stage musicals to use rather heavy-handed miked-up amplification.  This is generally fine for the musical numbers, but it has the unfortunate consequence of making much of the dialogue sound too loudly declamatory, as if the script was written in very large capital letters.  This was very much in evidence in the first half of the show.  However, after the interval there are some very effective quieter moments, including a touching scene when the shy Eddie reveals his love for Deloris.  As the shy and self-effacing Eddie, Joe Vetch brings some welcome nuance and variation, finally coming out of his shell to reveal his inner John Travolta.  Karen Mann also brings a pleasing depth to her performance as Mother Superior, a devout woman determined to protect her sister nuns, but not averse to opening a bottle or two when the going gets tough.

Matthew Wright has created a very effective set that morphs from church to nightclub and back again in the twinkling of an eye, and his costume designs bring a surprisingly high degree of colour and glamour to a show where half the cast are dressed full-length in black.

Sister Act is certainly enjoyable, but it is not the kind of musical that is likely to send you away humming its songs.  What makes this production memorable is Alexandra Burke’s high-powered, star performance and, of course, her wonderful voice.   ★★★☆☆    Mike Whitton    8th August 2017