The three theological virtues of Catholic philosophy roughly correspond to the stages of critical generosity evoked by Sister Act. First the musical raises hope: Alan Menken is among our most accomplished composers, and there is abundant promise in the show's source material, the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film about a nightclub singer who poses as a nun while on the run from the mob. When the musical begins, one turns uneasily to faith: Surely momentum will kick in soon, and hasn't the witty Douglas Carter Beane—whose Xanadu turned Velveeta to fondue—been busy at work on improving the script? Finally, though, one must resort to charity: It's not that bad! They're trying hard! It's mildly entertaining! Cut them some slack!
Sister Act's plot has been moved from 1990s Nevada to 1970s Pennsylvania to accommodate its best feature: Menken's tuneful and intelligently crafted music, which—paired with Glenn Slater's lyrics—offers a clever pastiche of Philadelphia soul and early disco. But as the music gets into a groove, the book falls into a rut, veering from one implausible turn to another until it finally dissolves in a muddle of bumptious farce. This might work if it all took place within the brackets of wacky comedy, but the tone of the show, directed by Jerry Zaks, keeps bulging in and out of seriousness. (The plot begins with an onstage murder that meshes poorly with the Nunsense-ical camp that follows.)
This is true of Sister Act's leading lady as well. The part of Deloris Van Cartier was written for a personality performer, and though Patina Miller has many talents—and a voice like a soft-serve ice-cream swirl—she isn't funny in a specific way. (The show may be keeping its heroine's sassiness in check to avoid African-American stereotypes, but it hasn't given her anything else to fill the void.) Victoria Clark is her trusty self as the crusty Mother Superior who butts wimples with Deloris, but the show's only real color is provided in smaller comic roles, such as Demond Green's dim-witted thug and Audrie Neenan's rigid sister. When the show sticks Neenan with rapping-old-lady shtick—both anachronistic and pass—it gives itself over to the sin of inanity, but otherwise it's harmless Broadway filler: an underseasoned Philly cheese steak.—Adam Feldman