The swanky, sculptural ceiling in the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House doesn’t actually budge when the cast of the touring musical Sister Act gets its praise on. But when it comes to delivering rafter-raising music, this is one company that eventually proves itself ready to rumble.
Based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie hit, Sister Act followed a somewhat bumpy path to its 2011 Broadway debut after opening in London two years earlier.
The book by Cheers writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner got a makeover by the comedically astute Douglas Carter Beane at the behest of the show’s new director, Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks. The result plays like the work of Broadway pros, with a funny (if predictable) plot serving as a showcase for the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater score, which uses late-1970s Philadelphia soul and disco as its musical palette.
Sister Act had a two-week run at the Broward Center at the end of 2012, and now a different cast is back in South Florida for a fleeting run at the Arsht.
At first, this edition of Sister Act seems to be anything but heaven sent. The “orchestra” consists of five musicians (one doubling as the conductor), their sound enhanced by a pre-recorded track. They’re perfectly good musicians, but that’s one desolate orchestra pit, not exactly what you’d expect when a musical commands a $125 top ticket price.
Similarly, the show starts small, with aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Kerissa Arrington) and her backup singers Tina (Wonu Ogunfowora) and Michelle (Renée Veronica Freeman) singing a modest version of the show’s best-known song, Take Me to Heaven.
Deloris — whose real name is the decidedly less glamorous Doris Carter — has stars in her eyes and is hoping that her ruthless, manipulative married boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Kolby Kindle) will book her at his Philly club. He declares her not ready yet but leaves her with a lavish Christmas gift: a blue fur coat. It’s not the white fox of her Donna Summer disco dreams, but it seems nice enough, at least until she notices the name of Curtis’ wife Cynthia embroidered into the lining.
The plot really gets rolling when Deloris witnesses Curtis commit murder as his Three Stooges henchmen — Joey (F. Tyler Burnet), Pablo (Nicholas Alensander Rodriguez) and T.J. (Lawrence Dandridge) — look on. Though she swears not to tell before she nervously sprints away, the transitory nature of Curtis’ love becomes clear as he croons When I Find My Baby, a song about the different ways he can take her out. And not on a date.
At the suggestion of Eddie Souther (Lamont O’Neal), a cop who has had a crush on her since high school, Deloris is hidden away in a convent to keep her safe until she can testify against Curtis. The Mother Superior (Maggie Clennon Reberg) is less than thrilled but figures maybe the unwanted guest can teach the church’s truly pitiable nun choir to at least sing on key. Deloris, rechristened Sister Mary Clarence, does much more. When she injects a gospel spirit into the nuns’ numbers, Sister Act finally takes off.
After that low-key beginning, Arrington proves herself a compelling singer who finds not just the sass and swagger in Deloris’ personality but the capacity for change. Her rendition of the title song, an appreciation for what her unlikely companions have given her, is genuinely moving.
In a role that can be comedy gold (as it was when Sister Act played the Broward Center), Reberg is vocally underwhelming, and she doesn’t quite manage the sort of line readings that can turn Deloris’ judgmental foe into an amusing antagonist. Burnet, Rodriguez and Dandridge have a field day with Lady in the Long Black Dress, a wildly inappropriate song of seduction aimed at the nuns, though Burnet and Rodriguez (whose Spanish accent barely registers) otherwise could take their lunacy up a notch.
Kindle and O’Neal have fine velvet pipes as the bad guy and the good guy in Deloris’ life. Gordon Gray is a portly host with the most as Monsignor O’Hara. And Deloris’ fellow “nuns” — Emily Kay Shrader is the questioning postulant Mary Robert, Sarah Michelle Cuc as Mary Patrick, Nancy Evans as Mary Lazarus and Tara Tagliaferro as Mary Martin-of-Tours (Carter Beane’s joke, we presume) — plus a nun ensemble give the show its vocal pizazz.
Sister Act is more than a little silly, as the nuns go all Vegas on Klara Zieglerova’s church set, which is dominated by a massive statue of Mary. Like the cast as it dons Lez Brotherston’s most over-the-top glitter costumes to dance to Anthony Van Laast’s finale choreography, the Blessed Mother gets a disco-ball makeover. Which is maybe going a smidgeon too far.
Still, for an audience looking for nothing more than sheer entertainment, Sister Act comes through with its joyful noise.
If you go
What: ‘Sister Act’ by Alan Menken, Glenn Slater, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, Douglas Carter Beane.
Where: Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.