One of the differences between a play and a musical is that a play wants to be believed, whereas a musical is content to be enjoyed. So even though the musical Sister Act is largely concerned with belief — in God or man or a fusion of the two — it is perfectly pleased to be sheerly enjoyable, which it mostly is.
Doris Carter, a black nightclub chanteuse who calls herself Deloris Van Cartier, stumbles onto her nightclub owner and gangster lover, Curtis, with a smoking gun over the stool pigeon gang member he has just offed. She escapes. To prevent her from becoming a key witness, he orders his three henchmen to retrieve her alive or dead. Eddie, a former schoolmate smitten with her, now an ineffectual policeman, finds her a safe hiding place in South Philadelphia, where the action is laid. It is a church and convent she is to inhabit in nun’s habit for a month. A foul-mouthed atheist, she wants none of it, and neither does the wise and witty Mother Superior. But Deloris stays.
The body of the show consists of the clash of wills between these two women, and of Deloris taking in hand the wretched nuns’ choir and molding them, with jazzed up approach and funny transformation, into a first-class swinging gospel chorus. The gangsters, who eventually infiltrate the church disguised as nuns, are foiled; Doris, Mother Superior and the nuns form a happy friendship as they ready for a terrific performance for the pope’s visit.
Out of this rather improbable story (based on a movie), with music by Alan Menken, book by Glenn Slater, and lyrics by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, comes a show whose first act is perfectly delightful, and whose second is a bit less effective. Menken is an eminent composer of stage musicals (e.g., Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast) as well as screen ones (e.g., The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and the repeated winner of every conceivable award. The Sisters score has a lot of fun intertwining the sacred and the secular, and even in its weaker numbers is far superior to something like Frank Wildhorn’s current score for the appalling Wonderland–19 numbers in search of a tune.
The dialogue and lyrics are always competent and sometimes pleasingly impudent (an elderly sister: “I’m a nun. My life’s been like the Stations of the Cross, but without the laughs.”) Or Deloris to the nuns (not dated at the time of the movie): “Let your funky behavior/ Show that you and the Savior/ Got each other like Sonny and Cher.”) And if the ending is too good to be true, that’s how it usually is in musicals.
Jerry Zaks has directed with his customary savvy, the choreography by Anthony Van Laast is agreeable enough, and allows the amusingly extravagant, constantly changing nuns’ costumes (by Liz Brotherston) to swoosh and swirl ravishingly. Klara Zieglerova’s scenery is good with both high Gothic and low Phillie, with Natasha Katz’s lighting as always masterly.
Patina Miller, from the successful British cast, is an expert Deloris, as adept with the early sass as with the later reverence. As the Mother Superior, Victoria Clark delectably traverses the path from ironic disapproval to conversion to Deloris’s contribution, to the extent of embracing even showbiz lingo (aka Yiddish) with supreme artistry. Both women sing superbly. Fred Applegate is enormously appealing as a jolly Monsignor, and Marla Mindella’s self-effacing novice grows into winning womanhood, The numerous others are no less on target. Sister Act is subtitled “A Divine Musical Comedy,” no competition for Dante’s musicless one, but for such very human exaggeration forgiveness may indeed be divine.
A nun is at the center of High by Matthew Lombardo, about goings-on at a live-in rehab, under the supervision of a somewhat slippery priest, Father Delpapp. Sister Jameson “Jamie” Connelly is commandeered into taking on an especially difficult case, Cody Randall, homosexual, drug addict, and male whore, with the death from overdosing of a 14-year-old bedfellow additional guilt.
The play is a battle of wills among the three of them, she being a former addict herself and foulmouthed to boot as well as tough as nails; Cody either totally uncooperative or aggressive to the degree of stripping naked and trying to rape the nun. Her tough love eventually prevails, even as she has to fight the priest as well. Periodically, we get Jamie’s sentimental, would-be poignant soliloquies about her troubled past.
The plot is far-fetched, deficient in both logic and theology, but not without melodramatic and comedic elements of mild interest. Under Rob Ruddiero’s direction, Stephen Kunken is good as Father Delpapp, and Evan Jonigkeit rousing as Cody. But, of course, the drawing card is Kathleen Turner.
Ants-suited, heavy-set, butch to the point of brutality, she barks out most of her dialogue in her dark abrasive voice, but manages to be softer in the soliloquies. Her act is the theatrical equivalent of a fifteen-round heavyweight-boxing bout.
The best thing about High (meant to refer both to drugs and to Jamie’s longing to be high above the fray in the stars) is David Gallo’s scenery. For the soliloquies, Gallo uses nothing but an infinite-seeming starry sky; for the rehab and a scene in a street gutter, he achieves marvels with strikingly minimal white sets against a black background.
By the time you read this, High will have deservedly closed.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.