Gun-toting mobsters in nun-drag, altar boys prancing around in gold lamé robes, dancing disco divas in sequined habits and a Platinum-plated statue of the Virgin Mary soaking it all up from behind the alter of a church lit up like a Vegas slot machine.
These were just a few of the kaleidoscopic sights in “Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy,” one of the more insane pieces of theater to appear on the stage of Shea’s Performing Arts Center in recent memory and a great, big tongue-in-cheek love letter to the troubled Catholic church.
The show, which opened on Tuesday and runs through Sunday, bears enough of a resemblance to the 1992 film that inspired it to pique the interest of a large and loyal audience. But if you go to Shea’s in search of that film’s straight-ahead narrative, its squeaky clean moralism or ecclesiastical choral music with just the safest hint of ‘60s edge, you’re in for a revelation.
The unlikely and cartoonish characters and absurd storyline, of course, are all there.
As the show opens, we meet Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer mixed up with the wrong crowd on the wrong side of Philly. After she witnesses her married boyfriend commit murder, she gets herself to a nunnery to hide out with the help of a good-hearted police officer who resembles no one so much as an overgrown Steve Urkel. There, much to the chagrin of the mother superior and the delight of everyone else, she whips the off-key choir into a pitch-perfect citywide sensation, eventually restoring the fortunes of the church and saving her life in the process.
For composer Alan Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater and a trio of book writers that included playwright Douglas Carter Beane, that was all very well and good. But where were the nonsensical references to orgasmatrons and pelvic thrusts? Where were the mobsters trading musical stories about the best way to seduce a woman of the cloth? And most important of all: where was all the roiling psycho-sexual innuendo?
They added it.
On my first listen to the cast album of “Sister Act,” I detected more than a few throwaway songs. On my second listen, the sly subversiveness of Slater’s hilarious lyrics began to take hold. And during the show, numbers that I thought were merely good became great triumphs of musical comedy, drawing as much from vaudeville or Mel Brooks as from Saturday morning cartoons.
The cast on hand for this tour is more than up to the task of interpreting Menken and Slater’s gloriously twisted, soul-powered score. It’s led by Ta’Rea Campbell as Deloris, and rounded out by the excellent Hollis Resnik as Mother Superior, Florrie Bagel as the hilariously effervescent Sister Mary Patrick and Lael Van Keuren as Mary Robert, the shy pipsqueak who turns out to sing like Mahalia Jackson. (As if that ever happens.)
The show has a weak opening and takes its sweet time before getting to the meat of the story, but once it gets there, it is off and running.
Menken’s music here delves into sometimes surprising territory, drawing most heavily from disco and working in a few lovely if not transcendent ballads ( Resnik’s “Here Within These Walls” and Van Keuren’s rousing “The Life I Never Led.”) But it really soars when it delves into some more obscure or unexpected sources, like the ‘70s R&B group The Floaters, who inspired what may be the best number in the show. “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” in which three tough-guy caricatures sing to one another about the finer points of convincing a sister to break a certain vow, brings down the house. (Sample lyric: “I ain’t no pastor / I’m a stone-cold master / of romance.”) It features fine performances from Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda and Charles Barksdale.
Standout songs include the oft-repeated “Take me to Heaven,” the thugs’ “When I Find My Baby” and a piece called “Sunday Morning Fever,” which features references to dance moves and states of arousal would make even the most liberal Catholic blush.
This seems like a good time to say: If you take offense to the use of the word “sexuality” within 500 yards or so of the word “nun,” “Sister Act” is not the show for you. But take it from a lapsed Catholic who spent his share of time in the confessional: Seeing this show –prancing altar boys, pelvic-thrusting sisters and all – is likely to be worth whatever penance your priest can dream up.
What: “Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy”
When: Through Sunday
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $32.50 to $72.50
Info: 847-0850 or www.sheas.org