Palace Theatre, Manchester; Monday 24th July 2017
Originally released in 1992, Sister Act the movie starred Whoopi Goldberg as the lovable gangster’s moll forced to seek protective refuge in a convent where she single-handedly embarks on a hilarious adventure to transform the fortunes of her new friends through the power of music.
It may have been an unusual plot for a Hollywood blockbuster but the original movie was (and still is) great fun: the comical clashes between the street-wise Whoopi and the prim and proper nuns who daren’t put a foot wrong; the uplifting sing-along religious hymns with Whoopi’s soul and rhythm uplifts; and the lurking danger of Whoopi’s crime-riddled past that was always going to catch up with her and eventually need dealing with.
In Sister Act the musical, former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke takes on the lead role in an adaptation that is loud, lively and positively bursting with energy.
Individual performances are all excellent: this is a multi-talented cast where just about everyone seems to be singing, dancing and playing a musical instrument – all at the same time. The reverberating echo effect of female voices singing in a church has an almost mystical aspect to it, evoking memories of the film. It’s a bit of a let-down that the singing talent wasn’t exploited further – the way in which the film captured the transformation of the nuns from nervous and timid voices overwhelmed by the grandeur of their surroundings to powerful outpourings of proud emotion that filled the building and flew out onto the surrounding streets was completely missing.
What lets this down as an all-round entertainment spectacle is some fairly poor decision-making by director Craig Revel Horwood – who boasts an impressive track record of theatrical choreography, as well as being better known to British audiences as a judge on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
The show is three hours long, including a short interval. It really didn’t need to be. There are several songs which seem to have clearly been inserted as fillers: minor characters launching into unnecessary five-minute solos that add nothing to the overall experience, in fact they serve to ruin it.
There was just no need to make a song and dance about it: changing the original soundtrack for new songs and inserting so many of them has served only to dilute the strength of the underlying story, which hopelessly fails to come through as the cohesive glue needed to hold the musical outbursts together.
The ups and downs of how a street-wise club singer triumphantly turns a group of nuns into a singing sensation just don’t come across. Instead the evening feels like nothing more than a linear, sequential procession of song-and-dance acts.
This really should have been an easy win: a massive Hollywood blockbuster, a huge audience base already familiar with the brand and concept, and on top of that it already contains lots of singing. Transferring this from the big screen onto the stage should have just been a formality. But sadly it’s been over-worked and fiddled with far too much.
On the big screen Sister Act is a bit of cheesy feel-good silliness, on the stage it has sadly been turned into some sort of banal and wholly uninspiring episode of X Factor. It seems that Craig Revel Horwood is letting the traits of his talent-show day job infect his theatrical sensibilities.