Basically, this big-budget revival of the musical version of ‘Sister Act’ is more-or-less happening because Whoopi Goldberg was going to star in it. Having previously done a stint as the disapproving Mother Superior in the show’s first West End run, the comic-turned-Hollywood-star-turned-mega-successful-chatshow-host had been persuaded to take part in a new production. However, as the programme notes explain, she agreed on the condition she could return to the role she played in the original 1992 film: heroine Deloris van Cartier, the nightclub singer who goes into hiding in a convent after witnessing her mobster boyfriend execute a snitch.
It sounds like rewrites were afoot to make the character older, and it would have been fascinating to see exactly how that would have played out. But sadly you can guess what happened next. The pandemic put paid to both the original 2020 dates and its 2021 reschedule, and Goldberg had to drop out, leaving a curious production: staged at the vast Hammersmith Apollo for a relatively short spell in order to maximise the time of a star no longer performing in it.
To be fair, it’s hardly lacking in names: Jennifer Saunders remains on board from the initial casting as Mother Superior, while Clive Rowe (Eddie Souther), Lesley Joseph (Sister Mary Lazarus) and Keala Settle (Sister Mary Patrick) are all decently big names. And Beverly Knight makes a very respectable replacement for Goldberg: retaining her Arkansas accent from her recent run in ‘The Drifters Girl’, the Queen of UK Soul™ is a musical-theatre veteran these days. If she’s clearly not as funny as Goldberg would have been, she blows pretty virtually everyone else away vocally: she is an extraordinary singer.
Maybe Knight actually fits Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s musical a little too comfortably, though. Goldberg was this revival’s USP: not just a huge star and formidable comedy presence, but an authentic link to the original film. Now it feels a bit directionless: competently revived with a great singer who can nail the songs, but without any real reinvention or obvious imperative for bringing it back.
Nonetheless, it’s a solid production from Bill Buckhurst with some fun set-pieces: in particular, Rowe’s double-quick change in the song ‘I Could Be That Guy’ is truly astounding, while the lurid curtain-call costumes are a migraine-inducing delight (it’s great work all round from costume designer Morgan Large). And Mencken and Slater’s exuberant, often genuinely funny songs have some definite keepers in their ranks: the musical is set in ‘70s Philadelphia (as opposed to the film’s ‘90s San Francisco), and the soulful nods to the styles of the era suit Knight down to the ground.
But the musical is no stone-cold classic. It’s a sturdy enough comic romp in the first half, as Deloris reluctantly joins the nuns, finding redemption for her and them as she reforms their hitherto hopeless choir. But the second half is bloated and ponderous, too much watching characters feeling sorry for themselves at length, too little comedy.
Saunders feels miscast too: her distracted, doddery schtick is fine but she’s not a great foil to Knight’s Deloris: you never get the feeling her Mother Superior disapproves of the newcomer any more than she disapproves of everything else. Telly stalwart Lesley Joseph is fun as the grouchy but witty Mary Lazarus and ‘Greatest Showman’ star Settle is a hoot as the pathologically cheerful Mary Patrick. Rowe is fine as nice-guy cop Eddie – you wouldn’t say he had much chemistry with Knight, but he packs almost as much vocal firepower as she does, and it’s all worth it for that lightning change.
I don’t really have a huge amount more to add: ‘Sister Act’ is an okay musical, revived with a decent cast and reasonable charm. It’s fine. But the whole point of this production was to bring Whoopi Goldberg here and she’s not here. I don’t think the producers should be blamed for persisting with it, and they may not have had much choice. But while there’s much here to like, at its heart this is event theatre without the actual event.