George S. Kaufman once said, “If you get the audience in the first two or three minutes, you have them for the whole of the first act.” And if he was right, that’s where this generally strong production of the musical Sister Act goes wrong.
Just like the movie, it’s about Deloris Van Cartier (nee Delores Carter) who is a disco singing star n the environs of Philadelphia in the 1970s. But when she witnesses the nasty hoodlum Curtis (an imposing A. Harris Brown) murder a guy in his gang, she goes underground in a convent thanks to the kindly help from a detective named “Sweaty” Eddie (because he, you know, sweats a lot).
The first act feels a lot longer than it should because, during those first minutes when Deloris and her two backup singers are delivering “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous, Baby!” there is a serious shortfall of glitz and sass. As written by Alan Mencken (music) and Glen Slater (lyrics), along with the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, this is the set-up for the whole show. We need to see Deloris killing in the club before she sees Curtis kill someone else for real.
But the bland, non-club-style lighting and the rather tepid performances early on don’t serve to establish Deloris as a musical force of nature. This sucks most of the helium out of the lighter-than-air balloon that this show should be. Indeed, things really don’t start elevating until almost the end of the first act, when the stage comes alive with “Raise Your Voice.” At that moment, when the new “nun” Deloris instructs the clueless choir sisters as to the basics of singing and performing, the fun really begins.
Even so the show, as seen at a preview performance, demonstrated some strong performances that can overcome the slow beginning. As Deloris, Colleen Longshaw has all the vocal power and stage presence she needs to make this take off. Teresa DeBerry stands out as a no-nonsense Mother Superior, and the show resonates well when she’s on stage especially in the more energized second act when she sings the witty “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”
Some other members of the convent and the gang make help Sister swing, including infectiously grinning Dayshawnda Ash as Sister Mary Patrick and Christina Johnson as sharp-tongued Sister Mary Lazarus. Katelyn Cornelius creates an interesting character as wimpy Sister Mary Robert, but she had a bit of a hard time finding the right notes in her solo “The Life I Never Led.” The same is true with Matt F. Gillespie and his solo that morphs into a production number, “I Could Be That Guy.” And three of Curtis’s gang members—Richard Moses as TJ, Nate Summers as Joey and Gideon Patrick-Lorete as Pablo—have a blast with “Lady in the Long Black Dress.”
Director Sheffia Randall Dooley handles the traffic well in this complex production with a large cast. Once the performers settle in and keep the pacing tight, a lot of the jokes will land with more snap. And if the start of the show finds a way to get a charge of adrenaline it will be, well, a godsend.
Through December 30 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.