Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh – until 15 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
If you like musical comedy you really should catch up with nun on the run Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act at the Playhouse this week. The wannabe disco diva is forced to hide out in a convent after seeing her bad news boyfriend murder a member of his gang. Having agreed to testify against Curtis, she has to avoid him and his thugs for the month leading up to his court appearance.
Deloris doesn’t take easily to a life of quiet contemplation, causing the stuffy Mother Superior to put her in charge of the choir. Rather than pouring cold water on Deloris’s sense of fun, the move soon has the sisters dancing to her tune… and singing. Clueless chorus becomes heavenly choir and a convent which couldn’t attract more than a handful of worshippers is soon awash with fans of Deloris and the swinging sisters. Maybe appearing on TV, though, isn’t the best idea when someone wants to blow your brains out…
The story is the same, the characters are familiar, but this isn’t the hit 1992 movie – rather than a jukebox score, this has original songs and given that the music’s by Alan Menken of Aladdin and Beauty & the Beast, it’s not surprising that they’re almost all gems. With lyricist Glenn Slater he’s come up with soulful ballads, high energy disco numbers, Motown pastiches, even a song for a tipsy Mother Superior, all moving the story along while revealing character.
Alexandra Burke could well have an entry in the Book of Revelation – I knew the X Factor winner can belt out a tune, and has stage presence to spare, but never expected the actress we get here. She leads the cast with authority, connects with the script and shows a real talent for clowning.
I don’t know whether it’s the invention of director/choreographer Craig Revel Horwood or Burke herself, but a gangly, stepping walk she does every now and then is hilarious, encapsulating Deloris’ neurotic dynamism.
And when she does sing, whether solo or leading big numbers, it’s clear this is a woman with a big stage career ahead. Burke’s power, control and intelligence make her a performer to cherish. If Broadway isn’t already calling, it’s checking the Rolodex.
Other cast members also get to shine, from Karen Mann as Mother Superior to Joe Vetch as nice guy cop ‘Sweaty’ Eddie. Aaron Lee Lambert is smooth criminal Curtis while Sarah Goggin and Susannah Van Den Berg are clearly having a ball as singing Sisters Mary Patrick and Mary Robert – Van Den Berg steals the audience’s collective heart with The Life I Never Led.
Another standout moment sees goons TJ, Joey and Pablo, aka Sandy Grigelis, Samuel Morgan-Grahame and Ricky Rojas, try to seduce the Lady in the Long Black Dress. As for that drunk song, Haven’t Got a Prayer is a tour-de-force from Karen Mann, who acts her socks off as she lets her fears about lounge singer Deloris fly free.
Matthew Wright’s adaptable convent set and Seventies chic costumes add massively to the atmosphere, as does the inventive lighting design by Richard G Jones. Strictly Come Dancing judge Revel Horwood’s direction is sharp, with most of his dramatic choices as effective as his predictably natty dance sequences; a slow-motion tussle between nuns and goons doesn’t quite come off. It’s fair to say Sister Act is a hugely enjoyable, cohesive show with one big problem… actor musicians.
‘Darling, I know you’re mastered the triple threat actor-singer-dancing thing, but could you possibly pick up that trombone over there and tootle a bit? And you, gangsters, forget the guns, take a guitar or two when you invade the convent…’
It’s not like the actors don’t acquit themselves well, but the conceit works against the show. It’s distracting in any play, but in Sister Act it doesn’t make a lick of sense for nuns we’re told have no musical talent to be carrying accordions, violins and God knows what else at all times, playing like they were born to it. And it doesn’t half get in the way of the storytelling… these ladies sleep with their flutes and trombones?
A lovely duet between Burke and Mann is nearly wrecked when, as the climax approaches, Burke is required to cross the stage to pick up a cornet or something so Mann can produce a few random notes that add nothing to the moment. How the heck is this still a thing?
There are a few specialist musicians, offstage, under musical director Greg Arrowsmith, and they’re terrific. I just wish the band had been bigger rather than the sisters being made to do it for themselves.