Singing nuns on Broadway are hardly a novel concept, what with the success of “The Sound of Music” (1959) and off-Broadway’s “Nunsense” (1985), but old habits are hard to break. When the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle “Sister Act” made its transformation from hit film to stage musical in 2006, few thought it more than just another attempt to appeal to Broadway’s increasingly unsophisticated audiences.
Possessing a feel-good score co-written by Disney veteran Alan Menken and Glenn Slater and a script by television’s Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, “Sister Act” was thought to be a can’t-miss cash cow. Although it survived for a respectable 561 performances, the musical received no respect from critics, with The New York Times proclaiming that the story about a would-be nightclub disco queen on the lam after witnessing a murder had all the depth of a communion wafer and not as much bite.
The Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center’s production of “Sister Act,” onstage through Feb. 18, doesn’t do a lot to elevate the show beyond its middling reputation, although it does boast a fine performance from its lead, Elizabeth Adabale, as sassy singer Deloris Van Cartier, who is held in thrall by her brutish boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Richard Gray). When Deloris inadvertently witnesses Curtis murder one of his stooges, police desk sergeant “Sweaty” Eddie Souther hides her in a Philadelphia convent prior to testifying. She proceeds to teach a motley group of tonally challenged nuns how to get down.
The story’s framework is based on a proven Broadway formula: an outsider disrupts the humdrum existence of a backward society, a gimmick seen in such shows as “The Music Man,” “110 in the Shade” and “Footloose,” to name a few. Unfortunately, the Steinkellners produced the first episode of a sitcom rather than a Broadway show, with wisecracks that mostly fall flat. Only Adabale’s appealing performance injects it with any spice. The other characters are chiefly broadly drawn caricatures that normally would take a few television seasons to develop into anything resembling depth.
The show’s lively dancing and upbeat music compensate somewhat for the mediocre story. Arts center director Fred Helsel gets props for bringing on choreographer Keenon Hooks and musical director Mazie Rudolph to create the crowd-pleasing ensemble dance numbers.
The songs reflect late-’70s pop styles, the best being a Donna Summer-styled disco tune called “Spread Your Love Around.” There’s also a little hot buttered soul (“I Could Be That Guy”), rousing gospel (“Take Me to Heaven”) and one traditional-sounding Broadway number, “The Life I Never Led,” sung by mousy postulate Sister Mary Robert (an endearing Julianne Sillona), who is having second thoughts about missing the more soul-satisfying elements of secular life.
Gray is too elegant as the inelegant
Curtis. Dressed in a sporty suit and white turtleneck, Gray comes across like a sophisticated James Bond villain rather than a hulking behemoth who wants to bump off Deloris.
Of Curtis’ three cartoonish henchmen, Alexander Reeves as T.J. stands out with some limber, sinewy dance moves.
Jeremy Whatley, who impressed with his fully realized portrayal of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in “Ragtime” here a little over a year ago, does his best to fill out the character of Sweaty Eddie, but his talents are wasted in this role. Stephanie Lesh-Farrell is excellent as the doubting Mother Superior, while Sindy McKay delivers laughs as the acid-tongued Sister Mary Lazarus.
The disappointing no-frills set design includes a curtain of dangling tinsel and a small disco ball to represent a nightclub and a paltry table and two chairs for Eddie’s spartan apartment.
“Sister Act” runs through Feb. 18 at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley.
Call (805) 583-7900 or go to simi-arts.org for tickets.