The Sister Act musical is based on the massive hit 1992 film of the same name which starred Whoopi Goldberg, and is such a well-known movie from that iconic 90’s era of great film making that it went on to have an even more successful sequel. If the nineties and subsequent 2.2 decades passed you by somehow and you haven’t seen it because you’ve been wedged real hard under a rock, get up and out to Hammersmith this summer for a belly-laughing, feel-good, disco-style night out, in the hands of a cast which boasts no less than three household names, a Hollywood film star and an additional two West End stars thrown in for good measure.
The story sees Deloris Van Cartier (Beverley Knight MBE), an aspiring singer in Philadelphia, auditioning to perform at her gangster boyfriend’s nightclub and accidentally sees him kill one of his cronies. Deloris goes to the police, who place her in hiding at a convent until the case is brought to trial. At first, this looks like the worst thing in the world for both Deloris and the convent, but after navigating the immovable Reverend Mother (played by none other than the hilarious Jennifer Saunders) she is introduced to the struggling choir at the convent and everything changes. This joyous show is then filled with song after song with music by none other than THE Alan Menken (best known for scoring almost every major Disney movie including Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to name a few) and lyrics by Glenn Slater (Tangled, Love Never Dies, School of Rock). It combines this the comic and thrilling book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner with amazing results and easily earns the “Best Night Out” award if you’re looking for an uplifting, side-splitting musical this summer.
With a comedy-acting juggernaut like Jennifer Saunders taking the reins of Mother Superior from Dame Maggie Smith who originated the role in the film and Sheila Hancock who originated it in the original 2007 musical production at the London Palladium, it’s quite possible that her first turn in a musical might be less than holy, but we’re relieved to report, she is entirely godly in this role. Saunders comic expertise is of such a level that she delivered the book of this show with such conviction and hilarity that it leaves you wanting more, and her singing voice isn’t bad either!
The cast also features the wonderful Lesley Joseph of Dorien from Birds of a Feather fame as Sister Mary Lazarus, the eldest member of the convent but who surprisingly sports the ‘hip-pest’ vibe as the rapping, lyric-spitting nun. The intermittent doses of delight that Joseph bring to this production are almost medicinal. She is so perfectly cast in the role and a natural born actress that you simply can’t get enough of her. Keala Settle, the vocal powerhouse best known for her role in The Greatest Showman movie holds her own and brings real gusto to the team of heavenly ladies in this cast as Sister Mary Patrick. Special mention is given to Lizzie Bea (Hairspray) who plays the shy, meek voiced Sister Mary Robert. Bea’s depiction of this character is truly perfect, and its fair to say she had big shoes to feel after the original stage production, but ‘bea’ in no doubt that what she brings to this character is so much deeper than her predecessors. Her acting oozes with so much truth and tenderness that when she ‘finds her voice’ as a result of Deloris’s tutoring you are completely blown away by the sheer power and vocal range that this young actress brings to the stage. She certainly holds her own against the rest of the celebrity cast and brings the show its only real sentimental and heartfelt scenes.
It’s hard to think of a role and show that Clive Rowe hasn’t played during his illustrious stage and television career, but his casting as the bumbling, anxious policeman Eddie Southern is sublime. His comic timing, sensitive acting and show-stopping vocal abilities make him stand out for all the right reasons as the romantic male lead. His rendition of I Could Be That Guy sees him transform his entire costume in a split second not once, but twice. A brilliant technical stage trick which has the audience cheering with amazement. If ever there was a true pro in this industry, its this man. The RECS applauds you Sir!
Beverley Knight is utterly BRILLIANT, purely SENSATIONAL, and quite possibly the most versatile and flawless vocalist in the West End at present. Starting her career as a popstar, Knight moved into musical theatre by taking over the role of Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard in the West End and went on to win the Whatsonstage award for this. It’s fair to say that the theatre industry is extremely fortunate to have had such an accomplished singer make it her new career but she brings more than just her voice. Knight’s acting is accomplished and she embodies the role of Deloris probably more naturally than her stage production predecessors. Whilst the production was originally scheduled to include Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Delores when it was announced for 2020 (the pandemic put an end to that), it’s hard to believe that Goldberg would have brought any more than her Hollywood celebrity and comic skills to the production. In a role which has the weight of such a versatile and gruelling song list, we can’t help but feel it would have been a bit of a stretch for her to fill Deloris’s shoes again, and she would have been better cast as Mother Superior (which she has played previously). Rarely off stage or with a break from performing the vocal acrobatics required by this challenging musical score, Knight appears to find it effortless. The stunning tone of her voice is carried throughout the full range of Menken’s creation and the showstoppers Fabulous Baby and Raise Your Voice are delivered without even the slightest hesitation of fault. Total musical theatre perfection.
Director Bill Buckhurst’s delivery of this well-known story is probably the best that has been done to date. The supporting cast and ensemble are unbelievably strong, filled with character, expression, vocal delights and a ton of enjoyment which pours into the auditorium for the audience to absorb. Morgan Large’s set is clever and slick and where he has been required to create costumes other than a nun’s habit, they are imaginative and in the most part drowning in sequins (which is never a bad thing).
Overall we didn’t want this divine evening to end, although with the hefty ticket prices being asked for this big-budget musical, it may not be one that everyone could afford to go back again and again.
Can Sister Act get an amen? It certainly can. Nun as good as this FABULOUS Musical so an easy ★★★★★ (5 stars) from The Recs