Oh Lord has the return of the Sister Act musical been long overdue! Originally set for a return to London and planned to tour the UK before the pandemic hit, its revival has finally hit the stage and the road. Its latest resurrection has been touted as very exciting for a while due to the involvement of the one and only Deloris Van Cartier herself, Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg was meant to reprise her role (despite now being in her 60s), but instead soul singer turned musical theatre aficionado Beverley Knight has taken it on in London, with comedy legend Jennifer Saunders playing Mother Superior in Manchester’s Palace Theatre where I saw it. The UK tour sees the talented Sandra Marvin (Chicago, Porgy and Best and Hairspray) filling the big sparkly outfits and Afro wigs of Miss Van Cartier, while other big names add to the star-studded cast such as Keala Settle (who seems to appear in a different show every few months) as Sister Mary Patrick and second comedy legend Lesley Joseph as Sister Mary Lazarus.
Sister Act has, for 30 years, been a globally favourite musical comedy film, with a stellar, funny cast and a soundtrack full of classics that ranged from soul and Motown through to traditional hymns and contemporary gospel. Iconic songs like Rescue Me and Shout saw renewed interest and others like My Guy (My God) and of course I Will Follow Him were given uplifting religious twists. Sadly, none are present in the musical version. But how can a still relatively new musical based on a blockbuster film (such as we saw with Legally Blonde) live up to it and differentiate itself as well as add to its legacy? Thankfully, that disappointment of the original soundtrack being absent is short-lived as the numbers written specifically for it make it a musical of the Holy Spirit-calling order as you are taken on a hand-clapping and Hallelujah-whooping journey of self-discovery and enlightenment.
There are so many highlights to choose from, but particular praises must be given to Eddie’s big song I Could Be That Guy, the gospel-tinged Raise Your Voice and Take Me to Heaven, the henchmen’s hilarious crooner Lady in the Long Black Dress and Mother Superior’s emotional solo Haven’t Got a Prayer. Deloris’ self-realisation number Sister Act, Sister Mary Robert’s Maria von Trapp-esque self-empowerment anthem The Life I Never Led and of course the show’s finale Spread the Love Around are also all well-written audience-rousing songs that are performed with soul, zest and aplomb. The latter is an embodiment of Sister Act’s first and foremost message, ending the consistently funny and uplifting musical on a pew-party high.
The musical follows the same story as the film, though with a few changes such as setting it in Philadelphia in the late 70s close to Christmas rather than Reno and San Francisco in the early 90s during an unspecified season, and Deloris and Lieutenant Eddie sharing a mutual attraction (why does a love story element have to be injected into everything?). It does however, expand on some characters’ stories, such as Eddie’s desire to be something more than he is, Sister Mary Robert’s desire to find her true or different calling if there is one for her, Mother Superior’s inner turmoil at Deloris/Sister Mary Clarence’s presence in her convent, and even the henchmen of Curtis (the musical version of gangster Vince) get significantly more airtime than even their boss. Additionally, Deloris has the ambition to not just be a Vegas show headliner but to be as big a star as Donna Summer then later actually misses her sisters at the convent, soon even seeming to want to do her duty as a “nun”.
An equally brilliant cast fill the iconic roles made famous by the likes of Whoopi, Dame Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, and the late Mary Wickes, and expanding the roles of Eddie, Sister Mary Robert and even Monsignor O’Hara, bringing their own spark to the characters but taking some pointers from the actors and actresses who performed it first. Sandra Marvin, playing Deloris, is full of star quality like Miss Van Cartier herself, commanding the stage whenever she’s on it – with or without the dazzling costumes – but still humbly shares the stage with others and gives them time to shine just as Sister Mary Clarence does in the choir.
Jennifer Saunders and Lesley Joseph are truly wonderful in their respective roles. We already know them as comedy queens, and we are aware of Saunders’ singing abilities after playing the Fairy Godmother in Shrek 2 but who would have thought Joseph could sing and even dance? Jennifer adds a touch of humour to a traditionally stern and straight role that we have seen her pull off many a times in her sketches and shows, while Lesley has audiences both shocked and in fits of laughter at her doing Sister Mary Lazarus justice as a wacky, sharp-tongued and unexpectedly funny and caring person. Lesley will take over from Jennifer as Mother Superior for the remainder of the UK tour.
If you’re a fan of the Sister Act film, your faith in the musical being everything you hoped for won’t waiver and won’t leave you disappointed but neither will it take away your love of the film. It makes for a truly delightful evening that raises your spirits, raises your hands and raises your voices in appreciation. If I was to compile a list of my top 10 favourite musicals, as I did with theatre shows in general, you can bet Sister Act is quite likely to make it on there.