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March of the penguins 

Sister Act musical embodies a bad habit

In the fall of 2004, the Alliance Theatre staged the world premiere of The Color Purple: The Musical, and now, almost a year and a half later, co-presents the world premiere of Sister Act: The Musical in conjunction with the Pasadena Playhouse. One can't help but wonder which Whoopi Goldberg movie the Alliance will help musicalize next. Ghost? It might depend on who has the rights to "Unchained Melody." Jumpin' Jack Flash? Hey, the theme song is right in the title.

On first impression, Sister Act: The Musical seems to embody the disheartening trend of mediocre but familiar movies being made into high-profile stage musicals. The first impression is correct, but for what it's worth, the new show improves on the 1992 film of the same name. On stage, Sister Act provides a whiplash-inducing experience of genuinely clever and exuberant flourishes alternating with cringe-inducing embarrassments.

Cheri and Bill Steinkellner's book retains the fish-out-of-water plot of the movie, as earthy lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Dawnn Lewis) witnesses her mobster boyfriend Curtis Shank (Harrison White) commit murder. To stay hidden until Shank's trial, she hides out at a struggling convent, the Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith. As "Sister Mary Clarence," she chafes against the restrictions while teaching the tone-deaf choir to make joyful noise.

Given the premise's collision of song and spirituality, I fully expected a heavily gospel-influenced show; after all, the Alliance has gotten roof-raising, tambourine-shaking numbers down to a science. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Sister Act is that it barely contains a trace of gospel. With the setting transferred to Philadelphia in 1978, composer Alan Mencken and lyricist Glenn Slater instead draw heavily on disco and 1970s-style soul, which they clearly enjoy as much as choreographer Marguerite Derricks likes such dance moves as the hitchhike and the robot.

Now a hard-bodied Disco Amazon with Tina Turner moves and a Donna Summer sound, Deloris proves both more sensual and more out of place at the convent than Goldberg's take on the character. She gives the choir an incongruous disco sound and wardrobe accessories to match, culminating with surplices that gleam like mirror balls.

"My booty's heading for a special place!" exclaims meek Sister Mary Robert (Beth Malone) in "Take Me to Heaven," a churched-up version of a dance number Deloris initially sings at Shank's Funkadelic Downtown Disco.

Make no mistake, Sister Act seems capable of stooping to anything short of trotting out puppies and orphans to manipulate its audience. When elderly, crotchety Sister Mary Lazarus (Audrie Neenan) actually raps, the show's shamelessness astounds you. (Stealing from the already-musicalized The Wedding Singer is the least of it.) The cartoonish characterizations come across like sitcom acting calibrated for a stadium, although such actresses as Amy K. Murray are admittedly likeable.

Sister Act's interest in nuns doesn't extend much further than their funny outfits. The number "How I Got the Calling" describes the zany circumstances that inspired the sisters to take the vow (and features a puckish guitar reminiscent of Julie Andrews and/or the Singing Nun). Mother Superior (Elizabeth Ward Land) voices her spiritual crisis in "I Haven't Got a Prayer," but she spends less time soul-searching than lamenting a laundry list of Me-decade annoyances, from Nixon to EST.

Lewis and Land both prove so strong as actresses and musical performers that you wish the material gave them some meat beyond their predictable mismatch. Land's "Light My Way" and Malone's "The Life I Never Led" provide generalizations about personal aspirations rather than anything specific about religious sacrifice. Mencken's compositions express the same kind of pleasant but unmemorable uplift from his wistful numbers for The Little Mermaid and other Disney-animated musicals.

Divine inspiration truly strikes Sister Act in the fresh, clever scenes involving Shank and his goons. Shank frequently riffs on the lyrics to "Shaft," and when he says something such as, "Who's the dude who's sick of your attitude?" the henchmen chime in "Shank!" It's a running joke that never gets old. The show's comedic highlight, "Lady in a the Long Black Dress," finds the muscle rehearsing how they'd sweet-talk a Mother Superior, with Melvin Abston, Dan Domenech and Danny Stiles strutting and crooning lines such as "Let me sweep you off your knees" like they're the next best thing to Barry White.

Costume designer Garry Lennon takes every opportunity to dress the bad guys in full, flamboyant pimp regalia, and even gives David Jennings, as meek love interest "Sweaty Eddie" Souther, a hilarious breakaway suit to hint at his hidden passion. Paradoxically, Shank's big number "Dressed To Kill" manages to be completely superfluous and one of the show's highlights, not unlike the way Elton John's song about high fashion nearly steals Aida, despite the show's location in ancient Egypt.

The weakest parts of Sister Act tend to be the most faithful moments to the film, which makes you wonder what Menken, Slater and the production's delightful design team could have done with original material. Unfortunately, the trend of making musicals of movies seems too entrenched and too easy to market to go away any time soon. Next maybe we'll see Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit: The Musical.

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