Review: Sister Act – Theatre Royal, Norwich

The movie to stage route is a well-trodden path, with some ventures more successful than others but, when it works, it can manage to provide a show that not only reflects the original film but stands on its own merits as a piece of entertainment.

Such is the case with Sister Act. Based on the 1992 film, it made its stage debut at the Palladium in 2009 and now embarks on its first UK tour. Much work has obviously been put in since the London run with changes to music and lyrics as well as a tightening of structure. The result is that what was occasionally slow paced now flies along.

Key elements of the original remain. Doris Carter, better known by her stage name Delores Van Cartier, is a wannabe disco diva, working her way to stardom in various backstreet clubs. When she accidently witnesses her gangland boyfriend murdering an associate, she needs to go into hiding. The singer soon finds herself swapping sequins for a holy habit as she is secluded in a convent.

There are key differences from the film, however. Those expecting the songs featured on screen will be disappointed. Instead Alan Menkin has provided a new score that mixes disco (a reference to the new time setting of the late 1970s), ballads, dance numbers and even overtones of Disney to create a multi-layered score that builds in energy. Glenn Slater’s lyrics provide plenty of comic potential but also shifts gear where needed to provide the necessary emotional punch. From the exuberance of the nuns’ first singing lesson ‘Raise your voice’ to the soaring title track, the score captures the spirit of the piece perfectly. Changes to the score from the original London production to incorporate revisions from the Broadway production work well and tighten up some previous plot holes.

Slipping into holy habits, this is a first rate company led by a mesmerizing Cynthia Erivo as Delores. It’s a role that requires incredible range, moving from disco numbers to soaring ballads and Erivo’s vocals thrill. This is more than a vocal showcase, however, as Erivo delves deep into the emotional and spiritual transformation Delores undergoes. It’s a truly star making performance.

There’s also impressive work from Denise Black, making her musical debut as Mother Superior. Black captures perfectly the challenges a woman used to order and contemplative prayer faces when met with the whirlwind of Van Cartier.

From the sisterhood there’s fine performances from Julie Atherton as postulant Sister Mary Robert, Jacqueline Clarke as Sister Mary Lazarus and Laurie Scarth as Sister Mary Patrick. In a strong female company, Edward Baruwa elicits sympathy as Eddie, while Cavin Cornwall provides the boo factor as villan Curtis.

Jerry Zaks’ direction balances the comedy and drama well and makes great use of Klara Zieglerova’s impressive set and Les Brotherston’s colourful costume creations.

In tough economic times, feelgood musicals thrive and, in Sister Act, there’s such infectious energy and joy that it’s hard to resist. Touring versions of West End musicals often cut corners in the name of practicality but here the producers have not only maintained standards but have managed to stage a show that exceeds the original West End version. Sister Act proves to be a heavenly night of theatrical joy. Purely fabulous.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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