Well, sing hallelujah for a new, fresh, first-class Equity tour, which is about as rare these days as murder witnesses hiding out in convents when the sisters are just dying to be taught to love the night life, the boogie, the disco raa-ound.
Wait. The ghost of the disco era — and, of course, the ghost of Whoopi Goldberg — both haunt the 2011 Broadway musical "Sister Act," but I don't want to leave the impression that this stage-to-screen confection has anything less than a stellar original score, witty Glenn Slater lyrics and all, from the great Alan Menken. Indeed, I thought that Menken's terrific set of songs for this show — a toe-tappin' fusion of soul, funk, disco and sacred music — didn't get the respect it deserved when "Sister Act" played on Broadway. Actually, all of "Sister Act" was rather better than a lot of folks cared to admit.
For sure, this musical, now in its first national tour stopping through Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre, has many of the problems that afflict many screen-to-stage transfers — bitty scenes in multiple locales, caper-ish action that doesn't quite translate to the stage, too much adherence to the style and plot of the source movie. And it relies heavily on standard stranger-in-a-strange-land comic setups. But "Sister Act," directed by the inimitable Jerry Zaks, compensates with some special advantages. Firstly, if there's one thing better than a flying nun in the theater, it's a well-voiced chorus of swinging, singing sisters, givin' it up for heaven in front of the stained glass. Who in their right mind does not love a show with nuns? Where else do you get a gag like "My life has been like the stations of the cross. Without the laughs." Ta da, bom. The sisters will be right here in Chicago for three weeks, ladies and gentlemen.
Once we get through the plot machinations and settle in at St. Whatever It Is, "Sister Act" roots itself in this meaty, blubbering, big-hearted emotional center involving one Deloris Van Cartier (a bar singer who ran with the wrong crowd and now seeks witness protection) coming to see that, as the song soon goes, "I got all my sisters with me." Meanwhile, the flinty Mother Superior has to chill out, learn the milk of human tolerance from Deloris and come to see that, as the song soon goes, she got a sister with her, too. Just a different kind of soul-sister. One that might actually put some butts in her pews.
I had a sense this touring cast of "Sister Act" was going to be good when I heard its young star, Ta'Rae Campbell, sing in Millennium Park in September. Campbell has a ways to go as a comic actress, but she sounds fabulous and, just as importantly, she packs a guileless brand of sincere and infectious honesty, affording the show much of the warmth it needs (E. Clayton Cornelious, who plays her cop wannabe-boyfriend, helps there too). Campbell does not have the only formidable set of pipes in this road show: The fabulous Lael Van Keuren, who plays the postulant Mary Robert, massively dispatches her ballads so that they reverberate around the venerable Auditorium Theatre. On Broadway, Mother Superior was played by Victoria Clark, who played Big Momma with a certain mannered irony. But not Chicago's own Hollis Resnik. Oh no.
Resnik, presently at the take-no-prisoners peak of her full-on naturalistic phase, nails the Sup's big Act 2 number, a fairly standard statement of character fears called "Haven't Got a Prayer" like she's doing "I'm Still Here" from "Follies," which, of course, she did last year, brilliantly, on Navy Pier. On Wednesday night, her killer number had people's mouths dropping open. All in all, the touring cast of "Sister Act" (well, Resnik and Van Keuren, anyway) go deeper than did their broader Broadway counterparts, even though those New York nuns had a few more bells and whistles with which to work. Don't they always? At least all the sequins fit into the trucks.
The sound balance in the notorious tricky Auditorium (where mikes often mess with the natural acoustics) was excellent Wednesday, although they could turn it up a notch on "Raise Your Voice," "Take Me to Heaven" and the other stirring big numbers, which feature exceptionally witty (and laudably self-deprecating) choreography from Anthony Van Laast. I always find the way shows at this venue invariably get pushed back on the stage, leaving a dead zone between performers and orchestra, irritating. Every time I complain, I hear about how it would to be too hard to restage, relight, yadda yadda. Balderdash. This is Chicago, sisters, they could do it if they chose. I'll bet Resnik and Campbell, heck, the whole crew of lovable, harmonizing nuns, were all dying to take it downstage, and out to any and all peeps ready to forget the horrors of their secular, working week.
When: Through Dec. 2
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins.
Tickets: $28-103 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com