Updated: Aug 19, 2022
It’s been a long road for the hugely anticipated revival of Sister Act but our prayers have been answered and it is finally open in London for a limited run before it continues its UK tour. This revised version was originally due to take place in 2020 with Whoopi Goldberg leading the production. 2 years later and with one of the UKs hugest talents replacing Whoopi, Hallelujah! It’s here! But was it worth the wait?
Time for my confessional. Forgive me father for I have sinned. I am an obsessive fan of musical theatre (that’s not the confession) and count both Sister Act movies among my favourites and most watched ever. Despite this, I have never seen the stage adaptation. (Gasps from the crowd, fainting, screaming, Bibles thrown at my head). If you are looking for a good reason why, I just don’t have one. I walked past the Palladium production repeatedly and never got a ticket. I knew I wasn’t missing this production though and had tickets for the planned 2020 run (before I was even reviewing shows). That means I have gone into this musical fairly blind. With that in mind, there will be no comparisons to the original West End production. All I will be doing is taking this version on face value and reviewing it on its own merits. Obviously with a few puns thrown in too – I’m not going to break that habit!
Based on the 1992 film, the stage adaptation of Sister Act opened in the West End in 2009 where it ran until 2011. Since then, it has been seen on Broadway and on tours both in the UK and Internationally. Telling the story of night club performer Deloris Van Cartier who goes into witness protection after seeing her gangster boyfriend kill someone. Hiding in the last place anyone who knows her would think to look – a convent, where she pretends to be a Nun. The story has been revised somewhat compared to the film version, with one change being that it now takes place in the 1970s, but all the essentials that made the film completely joyful remain.
Stepping in to the habit is the Queen of UK soul, Beverley Knight. Having proven herself as a truly sensational stage performer in the last decade with impressive runs in The Bodyguard, Memphis and The Drifters Girl, this is the first time Beverley has had to test out her comic chops, and I’m pleased to report she absolutely nails it. She can now add perfect comic timing to her list of talents which are all present in this production. Fantastic acting and the gift from God that is her incomparable and distinctive voice, she really is better than ever as Deloris otherwise known as Sister Mary Clarence in what feels like a role she was born to play.
National treasure Jennifer Saunders is utterly hilarious as Mother Superior. Whether she is gurning or muttering her lines, she gives a natural hilarity to the role, at some points not even needing to say a word to elicit a huge laugh from the audience. Her effortless reactions and delivery make this a highlight of the role. She’s not the only TV legend to grace the stage though as Lesley Joseph is brilliant as Sister Mary Lazarus, giving some of the most delightful moments of the evening in her unexpected performances.
Keala Settle is fast becoming a fixture in the London stage, after her fantastic turn in &Juliet. She is on fine form as Sister Mary Patrick displaying an enviable mix of comic acting and her beautiful vocals. Just watch out for her nun chucks. Clive Rowe makes the most of his limited stage time with a scene-stealing turn as Eddie Souther, particularly on his musical number ‘I Could Be That Guy’ which features a double quick change that can only be described as pure genius.
One of the most memorable performances comes from the always mesmerising Lizzie Bea as Sister Mary Robert. Starting out understated and quiet, the character progresses to allow Lizzie to show the full force of her voice, giving goosebumps to everyone at the Eventim apollo. Her big act 2 solo number ‘The Life I Never Led’ is the standout vocal performance of the evening, performed with raw emotion and a real authenticity not many can deliver.
The songs from the film aren’t present here. Instead, we are treated to original music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. Highlights include the rousing ‘Take Me To Heaven’ and ‘Raise Your Voice’, the fittingly titled ‘Fabulous, Baby!’, the hilarious ‘It’s Good To Be A Nun’ and the simply beautiful title track ‘Sister Act’. As smaller characters Pablo, Joey and TJ, Damian Buhagiar, Tom Hopcroft and Bradley Judge get an unlikely standout in their truly brilliant act 2 number ‘Lady In The Long Black Dress’. The music is of such a consistently high quality throughout with not a dull moment in sight. Fantastic choreography from Alistair David brings these numbers to life with flawless precision.
The book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner with additional material from Douglas Carter Beane is a whole lot of fun. Full of witty lines, I spent the best part of 2 hours laughing constantly in what is potentially the funniest show I have seen all year. What makes this work so much is how it never takes itself too seriously – even when a gangster is pointing a gun at a Nun, there is still humour to be found. Everyone involved in the production seems to be having fun with this show and that translates off of the stage, allowing the audience to join them in the joy.
Visually, Sister Act is an absolute feast. With gorgeous set design from Morgan Large featuring exquisite scene transformations and excellent prop gags, all delivered with the fantastic direction from Bill Buckhurst. Lighting design from Tim Mitchell keeps the stage and surroundings looking constantly beautiful with some clever touches and potentially the best use of a disco ball in musical theatre (which, as a gay man, I would never say lightly).
It is hard to fittingly articulate just how a truly remarkable piece of theatre can make me feel. When it is at its best, it provokes a reaction in me – heart pounding, goosebumps, beaming smile and on the very extreme occasions, tears of joy in my eyes. Sister Act last night did all of that and then some. This is one of those rare shows where every single box is ticked. Cast, Staging, Writing, Music, Direction. It’s as perfect as it gets. At the shows opening, Deloris sings ‘Take Me To Heaven’ and that’s exactly where Sister Act took me. This production is musical theatre Heaven and a strong contender for the greatest show of the year. It really is fabulous, baby!
Sister Act plays at Eventim Apollo until August 28th. Tickets available here
It then tours around the UK with full dates and tickets at www.sisteractthemusical.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan