Black Nuns are Supposed to be Funny: “SISTER ACT”

Photos©Paul Lyden

Photos©Paul Lyden

Presented by North Shore Music Theatre
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Additional Book Material by Douglas Carter Beane
Based on the Touchstone Pictures Motion Picture Sister Act written by Joseph Howard
Direction and Choreography by Kevin P. Hill
Music direction by Andrew Bryan (with an assist by Adrian Ries)

November 3 – 15, 2015
Beverly, MA
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Beverly, MA) What do you do with a musical version of a 90’s comedy that doesn’t age particularly well? You try and set it in the 70’s and hope for the best. The North Shore Music Theatre cast of Sister Act is winsome at times, but not crisp enough to transcend the problematic source material.

At its base, Sister Act is a fish-out-of-water story of race relations – an aspiring soul singer who is black witnesses a murder and must hide in a mainly-white convent; there she spices things up and helps a choir of nuns revitalize a beleaguered church. The premise is at best a sitcom, and at worse a perpetuation of the archetype of the “mystical black person” who comes into town and makes life magical for white people. Unfortunately, even this doesn’t work, as there is already an African-American nun in the convent, but no one talks about that, and that makes the jokes about race even more bizarre.

There are some genuine bright spots to this production. The chief bad guy, Curtis Jackson (Jonathan Kirkland), is smooth and mesmerizing as he prowls on stage, every move of his a polite form of menace. The mobster henchmen chasing singer Deloris Van Cartier (Jeannette Bayardelle) after the murder are extremely enjoyable to watch in a sweet Three Stooges kind of way. The four villians also provide the best musical moments, providing dead-on parodies of R&B-style songs, singing about murder with the same seductive tones others might sing about beautiful women.

The troupe of nuns that make up the center of the show is made up of some entertaining characters, but they never come together into something greater than their parts. Bayardelle is given a tall task to make us believe the streetwise singer with a self-centered and grating personality can become the focal point for the cast of nuns, but the character progression feels forced. There is, however, real rapport built between Bayardelle and Ellen Harvey, who plays the beleaguered Mother Superior. When the two spar, the play expands into something three-dimensional, if only for a few fleeting moments.

This play might have had more success on the night I was to watch it, except that a glaring blocking mistake early on made one need to suspend disbelief. There was no earthly reason why Van Cartier didn’t get shot by the henchmen when she first tried to flee, save for the fact that one of the actors gamely decided to point his gun in the air to keep the scene going. This moment is emblematic of this production; it would have required pitchperfect staging to pull off this flawed script, and this cast did not meet the challenge.

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