Sister Act was performed by third-year BA Musical Theatre students from the Guildford School of Acting at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.
Star rating: 5 stars *****
Among the abundance of musicals based on iconic films that have emerged in recent years, the 2006 adaptation of 1992’s classic comedy Sister Act may be the exception that proves the rule. Given the story about which it is framed, in which headlining singer Deloris Van Cartier reluctantly hides away in a convent as ‘Sister Mary Clarence’ and brings her unique artistic talents to its ailing choir, the film is understandably replete with music, thereby lending itself ideally to being reworked as musical theatre.
However, while the stage version broadly follows the plot of the original (with a few notable changes, such as shifting the setting to Philadelphia), it does not incorporate any of the numbers famously reinvented in the film, including ‘My Guy’ (‘My God’), ‘I Will Follow Him’ and ‘Shout’. This omission is welcome in that it affords composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater the fullest freedom to exercise their own creativity, resulting in a superb soul-inflected pop score with much witty lyrical writing.
Guildford School of Acting’s production under director-choreographer Gary Lloyd of the 2011 Broadway adaptation of the show was a bold move, courting the inevitable comparisons with Whoopi Goldberg’s career-defining turn as the larger-than-life lounge singer in need of witness protection. Nonetheless, T’Shan Williams in the lead role proves to be the gift that keeps on giving: endlessly entertaining, with unfalteringly powerful vocals, and bringing inexhaustible energy to the stage at every appearance.
Other of the company’s principals also navigated successfully the burden of great cinematic precursors. Kelly Hampson expertly portrayed a straight-laced, authoritative Mother Superior (the role played in the film by no less a figure than Dame Maggie Smith), providing a judicious grounding in normality to counterpoint the show’s many eccentricities, yet delivering a remarkable change of pace towards the end. Among the ranks of the nuns, Ailsa Davidson particularly shone as Sister Mary Robert, assuredly holding her own vocally against a dozen GSA-trained singers.
Menken and Slater’s show astutely incorporates moments in the spotlight for several of the supporting cast, which were consistently well-nurtured in this production. Highlights include Sam Aires’ pivotal showstopper ‘I Could Be That Guy’ when his character, police officer ‘Sweaty’ Eddie, grew in self-confidence; and ‘Lady in the Long Black Dress’, performed by the comic trio of Gareth Evans, Christopher Blackburn and Joe Henry as criminal henchmen TJ, Joey, and the incomprehensible Pablo, respectively. Some fantastic character-acting was likewise seen throughout from Oliver Tattersfield as the croaky Monsignor O’Hara and from several of the nuns, not least Jerrilee Parker Geist’s aged Sister Mary Lazarus.
In a show whose successful execution relies on establishing impeccable comedy timing without compromising its serious undercurrents, it was the ensemble of nuns who between them delivered the final punch. Equally convincing as a pious Holy Order, a disharmonious mixed bag of singers, a crimefighting force not to be reckoned with, and a recently revolutionised choir sufficiently newsworthy to warrant Papal attention, they collectively established a fine sister act in every sense.