Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood directs and choreographs Sister Act, showcasing his extensive knowledge and experience of theatre and dance. Adapted for the stage by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, it’s nice to see the original story has not been changed too much and that the focus is on the music. Revel Horwood adds depth and soul to a project he’s been longing to do for nearly a decade. His excitement, commitment and joy is evident in the energised production. It leaves no room to catch your breath.
Tony and 8 time Oscar winner, Alan Menken introduces a catalogue of new music (lyrics by Glenn Slater), giving the show a soul and Motown vibe. Minor characters get their chance to shine, developing their stories through song and it’s refreshing to see them playing instruments on stage, even when they aren’t central to the scene. Drunks play violins as they stagger through the streets, nuns rap and shake their bodies to the beat, policemen lock up criminals with guitars slung over their backs. Mother superiors’ lament to God ends in a strangled cry and an uncovered alcohol stash.
Alexandra Burke has come a long way since her X Factor days. Last seen astounding audiences in The Bodyguard, she steps up to this role and firmly puts her stamp on the formidable Deloris Van Cartier. Burke has more than enough attitude for the role, strutting across the stage in thigh high purple boots and making herself heard. Her voice is outstanding, her chemistry with her fellow actors a joy to watch. Sassy and sultry, she uses every inch of the stage and it’s props to her advantage, as she charts her characters journey from a singer in a club in Vegas, to a murder witness in hiding at a place no one will look for her, a convent. As well as trailing laughter in her wake, Burke also manages to bring warmth and compassion to her role, particularly in later scenes with novice nun Sister Mary Roberts.
Deloris’ no good boyfriend Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) and his gang provide the humour as they try to find the best way to catch Delores. Ricky Rojas plays Pablo, the Spanish gang member who no one understands. Joined by Samuel Morgan-Grahame (Joey) and Sandy Grigelis (TJ) the men set out to distract the nuns which results in a hilarious scene of attempted seduction to the song ‘Lady in the long black dress’. The trio show their diversity, alongside Lambert, as they play instruments, dance and take on a variety of roles with some rather striking costumes (kudos to Matthew Wright). One of the final scenes as the gang break into the nunnery, in disguise, demonstrates their perfect comic timing.
The nuns steal the show, commanding the stage from their first moments as devout Catholics and tone-deaf singers, excited by the prospect of a new addition to their group. The audience members are captivated as they watch the nuns grow closer to Deloris and discover the beauty of the outside world, of song and friendship. The bond between Deloris and the nuns is the driving force for the production and their energy and enthusiasm doesn’t fail to lift the spirits. Sarah Goggin as Sister Mary Roberts and Susannah Van Den Berg as overly perky Sister Mary Patrick deserve special mention. As supporting characters from the original film, it’s nice to see their interaction with Deloris is still a key focus.
Joe Vetch impresses as Eddie, the policeman and old school friend of Deloris who she once called “sweaty Eddie”. We get to see Eddie’s character develop as he laments his lack of confidence and the way Deloris sees him. In “I Could be that Guy” Vetch showcases his talents in a dream-like scene while drunks grumble and throw up in the gutter. It’s both humorous and touching.
A combination of good lighting (Richard G Jones) and sound (Richard Brooker) make the main setting of the show very effective. The convent windows are penetrated by light which at times produced a beautiful prism effect on the floor, contrasting with the bright lights of the tacky bar where Deloris sings.
The nuns’ voices echo beautifully off the convent walls, suggesting natural acoustics. At times it was easy to forget it was a stage set. Gun shots made the audience jump, although seeing characters walk off stage lost some authenticity.
The few props were effective and original, helping with the fluid movement of the cast from scene to scene and not distracting from the music. Prison cells and jukebox on wheels, tables and chairs for the interior of the club and Eddie’s house worked very well.
There were some nice references to musical theatre. Deloris praises the nuns for their work, alluding to a scene in The Sound of Music as a direct example. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long running musical was replaced at the London Palladium with Sister Act in 2009.
Deloris’ only reference to praying, involving a desire for Donna Summer’s white dress and fur, is later revisited when she walks down a set of block lit stairs, appearing like an angel from heaven as the nuns sing. These final scenes evoked the atmosphere a gospel church or even a concert of the great Deloris Van Cartier. This is the effect of Burke’s stage presence and vocal ability. She drew the audience in and kept them there for the full two and a half hour show.
With its cast of talented musicians, actors and creatives, the 1990’s film, which took to the nations’ hearts, despite not being a favourite with critics, has been recreated for the stage with energy, enthusiasm and soul. Sister Act the Musical is fun, feel good and, in the words of Craig Revel Horwood, (now immortalised in song) just fabulous.
Grand Theatre, Swansea until Jan 28
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