Broadway review: 'Sister Act,' Philly-style

Patina Miller, left, and Marla Mindell in the Broadway musical "Sister Act." (AP Photo/The Harman Group, Joan Marcus)
Patina Miller, left, and Marla Mindell in the Broadway musical "Sister Act." (AP Photo/The Harman Group, Joan Marcus) (Ellen Dunkel)
Posted: April 20, 2011

NEW YORK - Dear Lord, what is that joyful noise rising to heaven from the spirited, snazzily habited stage-nuns at the Broadway Theatre? Could it be - the Philadelphia Sound of the '70s? Could it be - the new Broadway musical Sister Act, fashioned from Whoopi Goldberg's movies and counting her among its producers? Is it - re-set, to take place in Philly?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you are now free to study your catechism without interruption. Or better yet, save it for later and go get the well-worn lessons that make the American musical form work again and again: Good goes up against big-time Evil, but wins. The divine is in you. Love conquers everything.

OK, you've heard it all before. But in Sister Act, you hear it with the catchy music of Alan Menken, the man whose songs kids hum from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Those tunes sport bright lyrics by Glenn Slater, whose words nicely match the characters who sing them, and the zip-along book is by the playwright Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed), a Wilkes-Barre native.

So we are solidly in eastern Pennsylvania territory here, and Sister Act carries fun Philly references to Wawa, cheesesteaks (of course), the police department, the archdiocese, and more. It also bursts with cool numbers choreographed by Anthony Van Laast and performed by a cast starring the alluring belter Patina Miller, who in London originated the role of the black wannabe night-club singer who must be cloistered in a convent to avoid being killed by her boyfriend.

Once in the convent, attached to the parishoner-deficient Queen of Angels Church, she turns the discordant choir of nuns into gospel greats that pull in the Sunday crowds, and I never tired of seeing these sisters kick it up in ever more wildly designed habits by Lez Brotherston.

The music is a fine mix of class Menken (woodwinds accentuating the tunes, which stay with you after the show) and his take on the Philly Sound; some smooth numbers take you right back to a Broad Street boombox decades ago.

Victoria Clark (a Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza) is the rigid Mother Superior. ("Is there a smoking section?" asks the worldly nun-in-hiding. "Yes, dear," answers the droll M.S. "And you're headed for it.") Chester Gregory shines as the cop who watches over the singer, as do Fred Applegate as the monsignor, Sarah Bolt as a nun eager to lift her voice, and Marla Mindelle as the young postulant who has aimed to please everyone all her life.

It's all good fun and, in the end, not bad theology either. In the show, after a choral performance that rakes in the crowds, The Inquirer critic is supposed to have written: "If you see only one Roman Catholic Mass this season, let this be it."

Far be it from me to suggest only one Mass per season among the faithful, and particularly a Broadway Mass-style experience. But OK, let this be it.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or

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"Sister Act" is at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York City. Tickets: $51.50-$121.50. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or


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