Theatre Review: Sister Act, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: ATG

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy
Date: October 10 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre, Liverpool, England

Based on the 1992 film, the musical version of Sister Act tells the same story as the movie, with only some minor changes at certain points. After Deloris Van Cartier (Alexandra Burke), a singer as part of an up-and-coming band, witnesses her former boyfriend and band mate Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) shoot a fellow band member to death in anger and frustration, Deloris confesses about the incident to the local police department. In order to protect her safety and identity, she is sent to the local church, with the idea of her simply hiding out there for a period of time. But her loud, boisterous and outspoken, yet largely positive, nature riles up Mother Superior (Karen Mann), whose quiet, conservative and traditional approach to the running of the church and the guidance of the nuns is a great contrast to the lifestyle of Deloris. Partly to protect her and partly in an attempt to try and change her ways, Mother Superior transforms Deloris into Sister Mary Clarence.

After a near-miss when Deloris/Clarence ventures to a local bar, with several nuns following her as back-up and with her arch-nemesis and co in attendance (she only avoids disaster when her identity is confused with that of a local drag queen), Mother Superior is furious, and feels that the only way to keep an eye on Deloris/Clarence is to take advantage of her musical skills and have her join the choir band with her fellow nuns. I should mention that the vocal skills of the nuns are like hearing cats screaming, or something akin to a bad X-Factor audition (sadly for the X-Factor hopefuls, the performers in this show are deliberately singing badly). That all changes when Deloris/Clarence joins them and, soon, they become a genuinely talented and exciting choir band, although Mother Superior is further ruffled by the fact that the band use not-so-religious dance moves and the use of funky instruments, which is far from the gentle, holy nature of regular choir music. Yet it brings in larger attendances for masses than ever before, so much so that they are set to perform in front of the Pope. However, Curtis and friends are edging ever closer to finding Deloris, due to her fame rising, and Mother Superior looks to seize any opportunity she can to remove Deloris/Clarence from the church, which helps to set up a climactic finale. Oh, and there’s “Sweaty” Eddie (Jon Robyns), a local police officer who helps to protect Deloris, but who also has a secret to tell her, dating back to their days together in college.

As you may have gathered (which you definitely will have if you have seen the movie), the show is pure comedy. The story has the potential to be fairly blasphemous, although the message is made clear that if the unusual and contemporary version of church music results in more people coming along and being able to pray and stick to their religious values, then the alternative approach to the choir has to be to the benefit of the church. That aside, one should really enjoy this: it is a feel-good, intriguing, entertaining and largely easy-to-follow show.

The highlight of the show is undoubtedly the outstanding Alexandra Burke in the role of Deloris/Clarence: she is entirely believable and comfortable in the role of Deloris, understandable given her own real-life singing talents, and she transitions seamlessly into the role of Clarence when the more religious aspects of the character are brought to the forefront. She also has a flair for comedy timing, as evidenced by some humorous one-liners when speaking to Mother Superior. But it is definitely her singing performances which illustrate why she is perfect to play the central character here: an extremely talented performer who has taken to the theatre stage so naturally that she could succeed in virtually any role, Burke proved here and in her previous role as part of The Bodyguard that she has a very bright future in the world of theatre.

That being said, the supporting cast of nuns are also strong performers. For instance, Rosemary Ashe – who has a very loud-mouthed approach of her own – is effective as the previously tuneless Sister Mary Lazarus who suddenly “gets it” in regards to her pitch and tone during songs, as well as demonstrating her flair for the trumpet. Sarah Goggin is also very good in portraying the postulate Sister Mary Robert who is young and timid, but has a more outgoing side that her profession is hiding somewhat, which only comes out during performances alongside Deloris. The multitasking by performers to serve as both singers and musicians is also an interesting and welcome addition to the show’s big musical performances, and there is further humour to be found by Curtis when she sings a love song that begins with him expressing his devotion to Deloris before detailing his methods by which he plans to kill her. And Mother Superior, Karen Mann, is effective as the keeper of past traditions, but only when it suits her, which leads to some funny moments when her own values are called into question.

There aren’t too many negatives to this show. It ran a little long for my liking, but not to a massive extent. I did find the tying up of the various story arcs (without spoiling the details) to be a little confusing, at least in the initial execution as opposed to the actual final outcomes. And at times the dialogue was slightly hard to hear, meaning that some key exchanges could be missed by those who were hard of hearing. Finally, there weren’t any familiar songs which would be easily identified with the show, or at least the original movie. Otherwise, though, there isn’t anything else in the way of potential improvements that I could suggest.

Elsewhere, the set designs are fabulous; not only does the church back-drop feel authentic, but there is attention to detail with the layout and the lighting of the setting, and certain aspects of the church walls play an unexpected role later on (one example being a secret cupboard for some, erm, refreshments for Mother Superior). The music and the use of discoballs during bar scenes, along with discoball-esque lighting of the audience during advanced dance routines, help to create an authentic 1970s disco vibe (the story is set place around Christmas/New Year’s of 1977).

If you watched the movie and loved it, then you’ll get a real kick out of this. Even if you haven’t, though, Sister Act is a really entertaining, feel-good and fun slice of theatre, and the enjoyable story combined with the strong all-round performances, particularly from Alexandra Burke, make this one of the stronger shows of 2016.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent