IF YOU GO
What: Musical based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film about a lounge singer who enters witness protection in a convent
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Friday & Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday & Sunday
Where: Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples
Cost: $85 & $89
Information: 800-597-1900 or thephil.org
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — Nuns. Tons of nuns. In acres of Swarovski crystals and layers of MAC makeup. A glittering twenty-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin that both pulses and rocks on cue. I can't decide whether "Sister Act" is deliciously fun or delightfully tacky. I think the bejeweled Virgin edges the show into tacky.
There should be so much to love about this show based on the hit 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name. A sassy lounge singer sees her mobster boyfriend commit murder, so the cops stash her in a convent. A cranky Mother Superior sentences her to work with the terminally awful choir - where a bit of soul perks the nuns right up. My prayers went unanswered.
Despite a heaping handful of brilliant performances, the show never comes together. In biblical terms, it wanders in the wilderness for two and a half hours while the audience suffers through leaden pacing, gloomy backdrops, wooden dialogue and inexplicable subplots. No amount of dancing nuns, flashing lights and crystal-bedecked sisters can make up for the fact that the show lumbers forward at a snail's pace. For all the flash, the show fails to make you care about any of the characters.
Inadequate writing does little to explore the characters. Simplistic lyrics do little to move the plot forward. The show also adds a cumbersome love-interest subplot between Deloris and her savior cop Eddie, plus three amusing but entirely unnecessary musical numbers from the mobsters. "Sister Act" mistakes fun for fulfilling. By the time gangsters started chasing nuns through the convent, Scooby Doo-style, I rolled my eyes and wondered if this was heaven or hell.
The show obviously wants to serve as a sort of "church service," a rousing, feel-good, stomp-on-the-floor, hands-in-the-air, raise-the-roof spectacular. Ensemble numbers - with a dozen nuns raising their voices in joyful, pure, worshipful song - accomplish that. Yet, while these sequences entertain, they do little to call forth any genuine emotion.
Inexplicable staging and design choices complicate much of what "Sister Act" so plainly tries to accomplish. Many of the scenes play out against drab, dour and depressing black and gray drops and screens that represent the convent. Others leave a sole performer trying to command the stage; as good as the cast might be, few can rise to the task.
As much as I love spectacle, glitter, lame and yes, dancing nuns, the overstuffed and aggressively glamorous nun choir numbers give me pause. The lavish pageantry makes every other part of the show seem even more dull - a fact I'm not sure the show intended. When dancing glitter nuns are the best three numbers in your show … you're in trouble. Also, I'm neither Catholic nor the least bit religious, but turning the Virgin Mary into a disco ball just seems a bit … gauche?
So what works?
Ta'rea Campbell blasts the roof off the Philharmonic with a clarion voice. If she could simply stand on stage and sing all night, it would be worth the ticket price. Her Deloris has sassy style to spare; watching her spar with Hollis Resnik's Mother Superior proves some of the night's highlights. Resnik brings depth and grace to a dreadfully cliche role. Listen for her plaintive "Haven't Got a Prayer."
Many of the younger nuns take personalities drawn straight from the film. Florrie Bagel (Sister Mary Patrick) delights as a perky overachiever. Lael Van Keuren (Sister Mary Robert) belts her solo, "The Life I Never Led." I loved Todd A. Horman's hilarious, porn-tastic take on gangster henchman Joey. "Lady in the Long Black Dress" might be the most unnecessary number in the show - but it is certainly the funniest.
Monday's opening night audience adored the show. They soaked it up like a crowd at a church revival with a preacher spouting fire and brimstone. Other than Campbell's powerhouse voice and a few snappy one-liners in the script, the show left me cold.
"God has brought you here. Take the hint." Email me, email@example.com. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.
Full Disclosure: Naples Daily News publisher Dave Neill is a member of the board of directors of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts.