This past year, I’ve had the opportunity to see twenty Broadway shows, six touring productions including Phantom in Vegas and several Regional theatre productions – professional and non-professional. Some were good, some fantastic and others dreadful, but never once, did I ever feel “cheated”. Unfortunately I felt “cheated” leaving Sister Act – my first ever West End production. Not because I didn’t like it – I actually enjoyed most of it – but I left thinking, “This is the first Tuesday show that I’ve ever seen that felt like a Tuesday performance.”
During the first act I sat in the balcony after my seats had been upgraded from the Dress Circle by the box office. (The London Palladium seats 2,286; several hundred of those seats were empty on 11/24.) The second act, we moved to 4th row orchestra thinking that closer meant better. Wrong. All it did was show the flaws of the performance even more. Things were just not tight; there were chorus members cheating their way through songs and dances and overall everyone seemed very “relaxed”. And then there was Deloris Van Cartier, played by Patina Miller – the unforgettable tramp gone Christian, immortalized in the movie version by the amiable Whoopi Goldberg – who was a crazy let down!
I truly thought I was going to love this production because a week earlier I purchased the CD on iTunes and loved it. (It seems these days, there are very few cast albums that I actually can sit and listen to – especially shows I have never seen, but Sister Act was different.) Miller’s voice is astounding on the CD especially on songs like “Take Me to Heaven,” “Fabulous, baby!” and “Raise Your Voice”. Astounding. She belts to the rafters in a way the reminds me of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. So what happened? Maybe Miller was sick, maybe she doesn’t have the stamina to do an 8-show week in such a vocal demanding role; I’m not really sure what happened. Every time she was suppose to belt to the rafters she jumped into her mix of head and chest voice and suddenly, the music wasn’t as powerful and it became a huge let down.
Though, I do love Alan Menken as a composer (his cartoon musical classics “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” are quite fantastic), the music, at times, became too cartoon-ish, only because they reminded me of songs like “Be Our Guest,” “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” Then there are songs like “Raise Your Voice” and “Fabulous, baby!” that are memorable in all the right ways! My biggest complaint was in the men’s songs. They just weren’t up to par to the ladies – maybe because there’s almost 20 belting nuns on the stage and there were only a few men in the cast. All of the men were forgettable, even Monsignor Howard, played by Ian Lavender (though he was the best out of all the men). Whether it was the fault of the writing, acting, directing or music, I will never know but all of those combined created forgettable male characters and performances – something hopefully that will be fixed if it ever transferred to Broadway.
Some standout performances included Sister Mary Robert (Katie Rowley Jones) who was incredibly on point with her fantastic belting on “Raise Your Voice.” (Jones had what Miller should have had!) She recently played Nessarose in the London cast of Wicked. (I would love to see her in that role.) She’s got big things ahead of her and I’m gonna keep my eye out on her career. The English superstar, Sheila Hancock, was staunch in her motherly role of Mother Superior – perfect in every way. And you can’t forget about the hilarious Sister Mary Lazarus (Julia Sutton). She raps into oblivion and always had perfect comic timing in her unforgettable retorts.
I still loved it, in spite of all of this. Sister Act has so much energy and joy to give away, even on a Tuesday night performance. As it says in the closing number, “Spread your love around!” and Sister Act does just that. It’s no Next to Normal, Light in the Piazza or American Idiot, but it is still enjoyable with its glitzy nun costumes and shiny Mary Magdalene statue. One thing I know for sure is that it’s going to be a huge hit in regional, community and high school theatres across the country! There are very few men, limited costumes, a chorus of belting nuns and a story that everyone knows and loves; sounds like a huge hit to me.
On another note, I had a few firsts. This was the first time that:
- I saw an audience member, in a professional production, take flash photography like they were at a rock concert. It happened first row, center and TWICE!
- I saw a chorus member look at an audience member and give them a very dirty look (in regards to the flash photography).
- I’ve ever seen a show with an entirely empty balcony (dress circle).
- I’ve ever gotten lost in a theatre trying to find the orchestra seats. Ridiculously confusing!
- I’ve ever paid for a theatre program – 3 pounds for a program (and not a souvenir program). Why are there no playbills in London? For someone who collects playbills (and has over four books filled with playbills and tickets from every professional production he’s ever seen), it was quite a disappointment.
Listen to Sister Act: Original London Cast Recording:
“Raise Your Voice”
“Take Me to Heaven” (Reprise)
“Fabulous, Baby” (Reprise)
“Spread the Love Around”