Sister Act

Dominion Theatre

Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith in a film about singing Nuns that grossed $231 million in 1992? Yes please said the world! Now a couple of years later we have a new interaction of the 2011 musical starring Alexandra Burke, Ruth Jones and Lemar restaged for the audiences of 2024. Grossing? I really couldn’t tell you, but I would imagine quite a bit less.

The stars keep coming: Alan Menken for the music, Glenn Slater lyrics, book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane. Throw in Lesley Joseph as mother Lazarus, and Lee Mead as Steady Eddie. The concept is pretty foolproof or so I thought optimistically skipping toward the theatre, ready for a night of celestial-voices and comedic high jinx.

Deloris Van Cartier (Burke) a lounge singer with a very bad boyfriend Curtis (Lemar) needs to hide away in a covent until said mobster can be put behind bars. Sassy Deloris clashes with Mother Superior (Jones) but finds the choir in much need of her musical and personal sparkle. I mean, cloistered nuns? Gospel? The unexplained choice of shifting the musical from the film’s 90s setting to the 70s, meaning only one thing DISCO?

It’s a cinch, isn’t it? Well not so fast. Visually certainly that’s true. The Dominion’s stunning proscenium is on show (cheeky) after years hiding behind We Will Rock You’s set. Morgan Large’s costumes are stoned, flared and stacked in all the right places, with rings of delicate stained glass conjuring the loftiness of the neglected church. Moments of costume innovation (think Magic Mike, but that’s all I’ll say) do their best with some of the more lacklustre songs.  The cast is big and the energy is high, with group numbers wearing us almost into submission with their franticly waving jazz hands.

But the production has had a rocky pilgrimage so far. After being nominated but not winning any Tony’s in the US a 2020 UK production promised Whoopi Goldberg back in her original role of Deloris. The text was shifted, Jennifer Saunders was brought in as Mother Superior and the theatre world was abuzz. Then the thing that rhymes with ouch-my-spleen (COVID-19 for the slower amongst you) darkened the theatres of the land. When the production resurfaced Goldberg was no longer free and we collectively mourned. Beverley Knight stepped in and now we have Burke returning to the role after a 2016 stint.

But the Goldberg curse (as I am now calling it) didn’t stop there. Burke X factor winner and double platinum-selling artist has the pipes and then some. Her range and technique are unsurpassed, same with Lemar, all crooning Al green-like, silky-smooth. Both are passable but not gifted actors, tending towards caricatures of the brassy singer and sharp-suited baddie. Jones (of Gavin and Stacy fame) is a fantastic actress, inflecting the role with Welsh turns of phase almost as skilled with withering sarcasm as Dame Maggie. Reversely however her singing voice is shaky, which for a musical is a slight issue.

Let’s go a level down, shall we? Menken’s enthusiastic if not particularly memorable score, Slater’s lyric, or book by Steinkellnerx2, Carter Beane and direction from Bill Buckhurst, skin deep at best. Musicals by maths, various explanatory character songs, with big numbers peppered between to fill out the extra hour the musical has over the film. The choir sections are jubilant but that’s mainly because Gospel music is jubilant, and overall the story crawls along at a preordained and painstaking pace.

But wait, we sink deeper for more rot in the woodwork. The film is a classic rather camp early 90s comedy.  It has the cult queer following of say Hocus Pocus (and some of the same actors, Kathy Najimy) so I understand the reasoning for trying to LGBTQIA+ up the musical. That or they saw the pink pound signs, but that’s maybe a little cynical.

Currently, the Catholic church is one of the biggest opponents of gay rights globally. Carl Mullaney’s Monsignor O’Hara gets progressively camper as the show goes on at one point chasing the literal village people off the stage with hands outstretched in excitement, at another coming on stage with a cape that is emblazoned “let my people love” on the back. You could call this a critical standpoint but throughout the musical the church’s view is shown to be the correct one, needing ruffling by Deloris’s musical street smarts but ultimately winning out. There is not an inch of criticism in the script, just vague and unsubstantiated visuals. A monsignor exhibiting such behaviour would be fired, or not ordained in the first place, backed up by the Vatican in 2008 stating “uncertain sexual identity” and “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” as reasons not to let someone join the clergy. The rainbow habits that the nuns come on stage wearing in the finale seem to be saying one thing but make no sense in the reality of an organisation whose head (Pope Francis) keeps using gay slurs in official meetings during pride month. Maybe I am a little sensitive this time of year as a gay man, or maybe not enough.  But I call pinkwashing.

This would be less obvious if other layers of the musical were in order, but the lack of consistent talent, quality writing and adept storytelling along with a clumsy performative stab at ally-ship combine for a less than heavenly evening. For those wanting a bit of themed theatre for this month most holy for the friends of Dorthy try Cabaret or Priscilla Queen of the Desert for a truly sincere rainbow experience.

See if for yourself? Grab tickets here.