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Entertainment Arts Artsmash

'Sister Act' lifts the spirit at the Hippodrome

The timing couldn't be better.

Just as "Sister Act," the musical based on the hit movie from 1992, rolled into Baltimore with habits flying and vocal cords pumping, Sister Cristina Scuccia was getting ready to win the "The Voice of Italy" TV competition with a wail through "What a Feeling" from "Flashdance."

Could singing nuns get any cuter?

I confess that Sister Cristina's pushy styling leaves me cold, and I confess I expected "Sister Act" to leave me even colder.

Well, shut my missal. This show, which had only a modest run on Broadway a few years ago, turns out to be a winning combination of the silly, sassy, sweet and spirited. And the soon-to-end national touring production delivers the goods with an exceedingly vibrant cast.

As for the story, just step away from the plot. Do not pick up any of the loose strands or anachronisms. Just go with the kinetic flow of this "Some Like It Hot"-ish fantasy set around 1978 in Philadelphia, where aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Ta’rea Campbell) sees her gangster boyfriend commit a murder and goes into an unlikely witness protection program in a local convent.

Deloris is about as suited to a nunnery as Madonna, which, naturally, means quite a batter of wills with the appalled Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik). What's Deloris to do but shake up the joint? She does so by taking over the choir, and not a minute too soon.

In one of the show's biggest stretches, these nuns go from hideously tone-deaf to "Sound of Music"-ready (or "Voice of Italy"-ready) in a flash. It would have made more sense to make them sound merely undisciplined or uninspired, not so pathetic. But, like I said, don't get your rosary in a twist over little things like plausibility.

With a book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, supplemented by Douglas Carter Beane, "Sister Act" makes for a very breezy ride, sparked by alternately blatant and subtle wit. (I especially like the nods to the musical "Funny Girl," first in Deloris' "I'm the Greatest Star"-like anthem. No spoiler about the second reference, except to say it makes for a good laugh.)

Above all, the show delivers genuine musical highs, thanks to Alan Menken’s uncanny ability to write songs that truly evoke the 1970s. Glenn Slater's lyrics can be pretty darn clever, too. The sincerest — in this case, most religious — form of flattery in "Sister Act" has produced something that manages to sound thoroughly original.

There are a couple songs too many, but it's hard to resist the pull each time the music starts getting into the groove. This score, with its delectably authentic pulsations from the pit (orchestrations by Doug Besterman, dance music arrangements by Mark Hummel) could launch the Second Coming of disco.

There's plenty of flair, too, in the choreography by Anthony Van Laast. (He slips in some droll business here and there that seems inspired by the indelible Juul Haalmeyer Dancers on the classic "SCTV" comedy series.)

With the exception of the final chase scene, which loses steam quickly, directed Jerry Zaks keeps things flowing smoothly on a more or less effective set (Klara Zieglerova), and gets polished work from the engaging cast.

Campbell, with a smile that could light the Avenue in Hampden for a month, offers abundant snap as Deloris. She brings to the songs a big, bright voice, but doesn't settle for mere wattage. Her singing is flexible, nuanced and vibrantly communicative.

Channeling a little bit of Katharine Hepburn to keen effect, Resnik makes a superior Mother. The finely detailed actress, whether singing or speaking, conveys a certain eloquence. (This character’s songs do not spring from Motown or the Philly Sound. Menken instead gives them a delectable Sondheim flavor — appropriately in this case, since, as they say, Sondheim is God.)

As the cop who knew Deloris back in the day and still has feelings for her, Chester Gregory delivers a sly, winning performance. Just when you think he’s a little too stiff, he gets his chance to strut his musical stuff. Look out.

There are notable contributions from quite a few in the supporting cast, among them the terrifically animated Florrie Bagel, as the dying-to-boogie nun Mary Patrick; and Tad Wilson, as one of the mobsters, who goes all Barry White with unsuspecting panache when he gets his chance to shine.

Whatever it may lack in depth, "Sister Act" is redeemed by sheer force of spirit. These nuns, as well as those who get caught up with them, have obviously taken a vow of entertainment.

Performances continue through June 15.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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