‘Sister Act’ at the Ogunquit Playhouse

Who knew a group of singing nuns could be so hellishly entertaining? And who could have foretold that a movie like ‘Sister Act’, while filled with its own musical moments, could make such a deeply satisfying transition to the stage with an entirely new score? The Ogunquit Playhouse is putting on a new production of the Tony-nominated show and it’s nothing short of a revelatory religious experience.

Re-set in the late 1970’s, the music is a pastiche of soul, disco and gospel, written by the celebrated Alan Menken (who was largely responsible for putting Disney back on the musical map with ‘The Little Mermaid‘, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and ‘Aladdin‘ – all of which have gone on to become Broadway shows.) The show itself takes a moment or two to build, but once Deloris is back in the habit and raising the roof with the rousing ‘Raise Your Voice’ every board and block of the Ogunquit Playhouse vibrates with sheer joy and show-biz salvation.

It turns out that soaring gospel anthems and Latin prayers form the perfect melodic structure for the injection of a disco beat. As built from the ground up by the Playhouse, this production boasts a winning cast, and the two leads are largely why it’s such a stunning success. Rashidra Scott gives a devilishly-good rafter-raising performance as Deloris, injecting the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg with a dose of glamour and a wondrously-gifted vocal prowess. After understudying the role on Broadway, Ms. Scott brings exuberance and energy to her Ms. Cartier, and displays the absolute voice of an angel – a powerfully-throated angel who can bring the roof down with a growl from the base of her register to a full-fledged peel of her highest note, and everything in between is just as heavenly.

Her counterpart, the equally-divine Jennifer Allen as Mother Superior, reigns with an iron fist but a heaven-sent voice. Her Act Two number ‘Haven’t Got A Prayer’ delivers moments of comedic gold shot through with a self-doubting pathos. It gives her character the empathetic pull that drives the tension, and ultimate resolution, of the relationship between her and Deloris.  Taking us along on the fascinating transformation of a woman toiling with inner-turmoil and her own faith, Ms. Allen has the less showy role, but as she jockeys for power and respect in different, and just as compelling, ways, she forms a sparkling foil for Deloris. They challenge each other, and turn out the better for it.

Having missed out on the original Broadway run (which starred the amazing Patina Miller, who went on to seduce audiences, and a Tony Award, in ‘Pippin’), I was pleasantly surprised to see that this musical went deeper than the film, highlighting the friendship and genuine bond between the women (particularly in the moving title song) as well as the internal fight within Deloris herself – in which her show business dreams battle with her angelic guardians.

By the end, Mother Superior echoes one of the first beliefs of Deloris: “All things being even, here’s what I believe in – Nothing matters more than love.” Hokey, perhaps, but truer than any religious dogma that was ever uttered. When you put it to music like this, and let it pour forth from the vocal instruments of such a talented cast, the results are transcendently spiritual. ‘Sister Act’ is one hell of a good show, and I’d wager the Big JC himself would be tapping his foot to it too.

{‘Sister Act’ runs until June 21, 2015 at the Ogunquit Playhouse.}

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