Yewande Odetoyinbo and the ensemble in "Sister Act" at the Lyric Stage. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Review: Lyric's 'Sister Act' Is By The Numbers

Robert Nesti READ TIME: 3 MIN.

Undoubtedly the Lyric Stage saw the commercial possibilities of "Sister Act," the audience-pleasing musical based on the popular 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film. There's something about nuns singing in sequined habits and dancing in Busby Berkeley patterns that has audiences cheering, which is the case at the Lyric, where the musical continues to May 14. But if you are missing the musical theater nun gene, it may be best to avoid this noisy, clumsy production – it could easily induce hives.

Its plot owes a lot to "Some Like It Hot," which was also recently turned into a musical for a second time that's currently on Broadway. In this case, it is the on-the-run heroine is Deloris Van Cartier (Yewande Odetoyinbo), a disco diva in 1970s Philadelphia who witnesses a murder and must seek refuge in an unusual way – donning a habit and hiding out in an order of nuns. The source material had a slick score of pop standards that would seem to make it ready-made for a jukebox musical. Instead adapters Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner turned to Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) for original, plot-driven songs. The musical played London in 2009, got a makeover with an assist from Douglas Carter Beane (responsible for a tacky running gag about a pair of gay men wanting to buy the convent), and landed on Broadway two years later where it ran for 561 performances and toured – respectable, but hardly memorable.

Which is the problem – with its naive, stereotypical nuns and a brassy central character in search of a redemptive story arc, "Sister Act" is strictly a by-the-numbers musical served up at the Lyric in a broad fashion under Leigh Barrett's direction. Menken, responsible for such musical juggernauts as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Little Shop of Horrors," appears on auto pilot with his generic, 1970s style R&B music and faux spiritual numbers, which often sounds like lesser songs from those better musicals. Glenn Slater's lyrics are serviceable enough, but they are often precious. ("Life is grim/filled with scandal to the brim/there may be room for Him.") It would take divine intervention to make this a good musical.

The best thing about this "Sister Act" is Yewande Odetoyinbo, who plays Deloris with warmth and sings the role to its hilt. She may lack the sass that Goldberg brought to the film but brings some depth to the cliched characterization. But Cheryl McMahon lacks the vocal chops for the stern Mother Superior – a one-note character who never develops beyond being Deloris' adversary. Nor are the nuns themselves particularly distinguished. There is an attempt to personalize them, even giving one (Kira Troilo) a wannabe showstopper in which she comes out of her shell, but the moment is just synthetic – musical theater 101. The ensemble of nuns never extend beyond their obvious characterizations, wasting the talents of such fine comics as Kathy St. George. And the less said about the cartoon villains, who include Deloris' nasty thug of a boyfriend (Damon Singletary) and his Damon Runyanesque minions, a trio of yes men who get the show's worst number in which they sing about how they plan on seducing the nuns. To their credit, the trio – Cristhian Mancinas-García, Jackson Jirard, and James Turner – deftly evoke 1970s R&B styles with their performance. Better is Davron S. Monroe as the cop with a thing for Deloris, who gets one of the show's better songs ("I Could Be That Guy") with a nifty visual twist in a clever quick change. (For the record, the sets are by Jenna McFarland Lord, costumes by Kelly Baker, lighting design by Christopher Brusberg, sound design by Alex Berg, and musical direction of the backstage band by David F. Coleman).

Barrett does what she can with the Lyric's awkward performance space, making the most of the two upper-level stages on the left and the right, but the opening played like a dress rehearsal with Dan Sullivan's choreography often lacking the necessary precision to be fully effective. The show's look is simple enough, dominated by three stain glass windows and offices in the upper level. But "Sister Act" is strictly by-the-numbers. If a musical were to be created by AI, it would likely resemble this one.

"Sister Act" continues through May 14 at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Lyric Stage website.

by Robert Nesti , EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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