Lasting Impressions: Sister Act

London Palladium, Saturday 4th July, 2009 (with Sheila Hancock) and 23rd October 2010 (with Whoopi Goldberg).

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This is a little on the long side for a review of mine, for good reason, so get yourself a brew and get comfortable! It also begins slightly differently because it involves a childhood hero of mine: the fantastically talented Whoopi Goldberg. I must tell you, dear reader, that the scripts of Sister Act 1 and 2 were memorised in full (without even trying) in my teen years and so I was beyond excited to see Whoopi Goldberg herself live on stage – and not just that, but in the musical namesake of my favourite movie…

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I had seen the production previously when Sheila Hancock was playing Mother Superior and I have to say that I thought Hancock did a wonderful job, I liked the fact that she added more soft edges to the character….but then of course, there came along Ms. Whoopi… and that was a thrilling thing to see.

In this production, Whoopi Goldberg returned to the fictional convent as Mother Superior (the fabulous Dame Maggie Smith in the original). A wise decision was made to change the show a little, having Whoopi appear at the start with a comical little monologue beginning ‘Dear God. It’s me…again’- a lovely touch which allowed the audience to show their Whoopi-appreciation nice and early without interrupting the illusion of the show once we were knee-deep. I thought Whoopi’s rendition of Mother Superior was a classic and a clear re-brand of Dame Maggie’s famous original- and indeed, the character herself. This Mother Superior, though a little mean to Deloris through necessity, was funny, fun and most importantly, had Whoopi’s charismatic spin on the role. I of course loved seeing her propelled back into this story, and it was fascinating to see her adapt to this role having played Deloris.

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The show itself was a dazzling example of a feel-good, fun-loving musical. The story has changed in a number of ways compared to the fantastic 1992 movie; a big change being that the production did not manage to secure the rights to have those classic Motown hits in the show so it has a brand new score. There are also minor plot changes and character name changes, but the basic skeletal plot remains and any tweaks work- without exception.

The set design for this show was utterly brilliant; every nook and cranny of space was used in this production, with set pieces flown in, pushed up and folded out. At times, the set appeared to be as mind-bending as a game of Tetris, but all for the better in terms of the impressive visual impact of the show. I was thoroughly impressed with this aspect of the production- the chase scene in particular being a strong visual memory even after six years have passed. Likewise, The exceptionally talented Alan Menken composed some beautiful musical numbers for this show, as well as some more toe-tapping, hip-wiggling tunes too. ‘Sister Act’ and ‘Raise Your Voice’ are particular favourites of mine.

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My memories of both the show and cast remain very vivid which is a reflection of the true quality of the production as a whole. Patina Miller had sass, wit and a phenomenal vocal talent as Deloris Van Cartier- as the diva divine, however, she was not the only star to shine on the Palladium stage in this production. The cast as a whole were a supremely talented bunch, each and every central character as lovable as the film-immortalised original, but often for new and different reasons. Ako Mitchell as ‘Sweaty’ Eddie (loosely based on Bill Nunn’s character in the original) was beautifully endearing as the hopeless romantic shakily and precariously fumbling to hold on to the flame he carried for Deloris (another slight shift from the movie). His rendition of ‘I Could Be That Guy’ was a sugar-sweet highlight for me. Claire Greenway as Sister Mary Patrick was thoroughly entertaining as she took the reigns from the fabulously talented Kathy Najimy, who played the role originally. ‘Hilarious’ is the best possible word to describe my memory of her performance; a spot-on stage rendition of a larger than life character. Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena in the original), played by the sweetly gifted songbird Katie Rowley Jones, was given significantly more attention in this production compared to the original; taking on a protege role as she gazes, starry-eyed, at the fearless and fabulous Van Cartier. I particularly enjoyed the back story in ‘The Life I Never Led’, something that provides much of the fleeting poignancy in this show.

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Perhaps the most notable transposition of a character from the screen to the stage is Sister Mary Lazarus (played by the wonderful Mary Wickes the the original). The bitingly stoic original became a liquor-guzzling, gambling rapster in this production and despite my love for the movie, this not only worked but it was a raving success, with ‘Do the Sacred Mass’ being one of the biggest laughs of the night. Vince (Harvey Keitel in the original) becomes Shank in this version and was played by Simon Webb. I remember thinking that Webb could have played the role with a little more grit, but the roles of Shank and his three minions, Bones (Nicolas Colicos), Dinero (Ivan De Freitas) and TJ (Thomas Goodridge) are much more comical in this rendition. I loved the bosom-shaped red chair as a source of comedy with the sleazy and ineffectual mob men; there were many laughs for the audience in their scenes.

Overall, this show was a genuine joy to see. The set was superb, the casting and performances were brilliant across the board and the vocals and harmonies were sublime. I realise that there is an inevitable bias here when considering how highly I view both the movie and Whoopi Goldberg, but even setting those things aside, this show is one of the very best that I have seen in the West End. If you enjoy big talent, big characters and bigger voices, and you are looking for something that will genuinely make you grin like the Cheshire Cat (and you’re willing to accept that this is not an exact stage replica of the original), then you should take yourself to see this glorious and divine show.

To close, I have an important question for those with the power to make great theatre happen: will there be a stage rendition of the fantastic sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit? Whoopi Goldberg? Stage Entertainment? Anyone?

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