Palace Theatre, Manchester – until 29 July 2017
Guest reviewer: Ciaran Ward
Craig Revel Horwood’s adaptation of Sister Act remains faithful to the previous Broadway and West End productions of the show. The musical, taken away from the varying locations of Las Vegas and San Francisco in the 1992 film, is instead set solely in Philadelphia, USA – heightening the danger and the limitations that the play’s protagonist, Deloris Van Cartier (portrayed by Alexandra Burke, winner of The X Factor in 2008) feels in her every moment at the convent where she must remain undercover, posing as a nun.
The transition from dialogue and stage action, to the scheduled musical numbers, is entirely seamless throughout. Alan Menken’s music, accompanied by Glenn Slater’s lyrics, are interspersed aptly, along with Horwood’s additional choreography that is executed effortlessly from the play’s ensemble cast. What defies expectations here, is the cast’s subsequent ability to concurrently hold and play string, woodwind and brass instruments; these provide the instrumental justification for the spontaneous singing that can sometimes feel forced and unrealistic in other musicals.
Throughout the narrative, the pacing is maintained at a rate that engages the audience’s attention instantly – a feat achieved through the play’s exposition beginning in medias res, with Deloris’ nightclub performance quickly developing into her witness of a brutal gang murder. Frequent alterations in set dressing contribute to this effect, with the play’s visual aesthetic comprising a gothic church that is visible in the background of every scene: a symbol of the sanctuary that the convent offers Van Cartier.
Stand out moments, such as Burke’s magnifying vocals and ad-libs, are not limited to the show’s lead. Joe Vetch’s performance as Eddie often ascends into a virtuoso falsetto, whilst Liz Kitchen’s Sister Mary Lazarus at one point descends into a Will Smith rap that is both anachronistic of the play’s setting in 1978, and of her perceived status as a pious Catholic nun. Consequently, Lighting Designer Richard G Jones’ spotlights often drift from the show’s acclaimed star onto other members of the cast who contribute sparks of creativity, individual to this version of the musical.
Considering this is the second time the Palace Theatre has played host to the Curve, Leicester production of Sister Act, none of the theatricality of the extended year-long tour has diminished. Indeed, Burke’s performance retains its spark and vigour throughout, resulting in a play worthy of a premature standing ovation during the encore, and its title as a ‘Divine Musical Comedy’.