Sister Act 

Edinburgh Playhouse

3-15 April 2017

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Directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, this revamped version of Sister Act opens with Doloris Van Cartier (played by the impressive Alexandra Burke) in the middle of an audition, in funky purple boots, flanked by backing singers in glorious shiny silver. The medley of songs gives us an immediate taste of Alan Menken’s wonderful score. A Tony and 8-time Oscar winner from the world of Disney and musical theatre, Menken impresses again as his lively disco-funk numbers plunge us straight into the Philadelphia Soul scene of 1977, and keep the packed-out theatre rocking for the next couple of hours. Burke makes a perfect Doloris, with her thrilling voice well known to us from X Factor and the Bodyguard, but adds perfect comic timing and sensitive acting to the mix. She stakes her claim to the character, with a persona sexier than Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 film version. It contrasts perfectly with the solemn celibacy of the convent that serves as her refuge after she witnesses her no-good boyfriend Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) committing murder. Doloris, however, certainly meets her match in the staid and stern matriarch of Mother Superior, played solidly by Karen Mann, determined not to let her bring the corrupting influences of the outside world into the convent, not dreaming for a minute that she will transform not just the nuns’ fortunes but their entire lives.

All of the nuns’ characters are strongly defined with great acting. Sister Mary Robert (Sarah Goggin) is the shy, timorous one, who amazes us with her rebellious transformation. Sister Mary Lazarus (Liz Kitchen) makes us laugh, and you can’t help but love Sister Mary Patrick (Susannah Van Den Berg) the jolly, excitable one. Doloris works her magic on each individual in the horribly discordant ‘cat’s choir’ as she expertly encourages them to shed their inhibitions and ‘raise your voice up to heaven’ like a Black gospel choir would. They learn fast, as their traditional hymns quickly transform into a funky jazzy numbers and emerge as full-on disco nuns in sequinned habits with some serious swag.

Seeing as Craig Revel Horwood is also a Strictly Come Ballroom judge, you would expect the dance numbers to be more prominent, but to be fair, we are dealing with comic gangsters and nuns holding instruments. Dance numbers didn’t really kick in until the second act, and partly due to the unusual amount of live instrumentation woven into the play by the actors/musicians themselves. Nuns with washboards, priests with saxophones and gangsters with guitars; ambitious and different but certainly impressive. Some dance numbers were bold and flashy, like Burke’s ‘I’m gonna be a star’; pure disco diva gloriousness surrounded by ‘boys’ in pink jumpsuits, and some were comedy gold. The imagined seduction of the nuns by the gangsters with their cheesy creepy, classically 70’s moves made me laugh out loud. Watching the nuns bend over as they encourage them to ‘Drop that Bible just a bit’, baby, well, Lord have mercy!

Curtis and his ridiculous band of cronies in their leather and flares added to the thin plotline and brought some laughs along the way. Lambert began to impress as he sang, managing a tricky combination of sinister, comic, cheesy and funky as the strength of his voice starts to come out. Sweaty Eddy (sounds better in an American accent) the policeman besotted with Deloris, is strong and multifaceted. Played by Joe Vetch, his awkward character belies a rich, golden voice. He does a touching guitar solo about being dorky and overlooked, preparing us for the unleashing of his own inner disco star. He does a great number in the bar, surrounded by drunks, his lovely notes soaring over the sound of a man vomiting behind him.

The set was excellent; managing to triple up beautifully as church, club and jail with a couple of change of props and some clever, colourful lighting. The symbols in the visuals work really well, with nuns behind a disco ball and a neon red light around a traditional cross  Seeing as half the cast were in identical habits, everyone else’s costumes fully milked the era to treat us to the full range of seventies’ nasty flares and leather jackets to gloriously glittering, over-the-top outfits. Burke managed to still look beautiful with a nun’s habit framing her exquisite features.

It is a dazzling, funny, feel-good show which despite its ludicrous plot, throws us not just drama and the expected romance, but some important messages of togetherness and understanding. As Burke descends the stairs in a stunning white sequinned gown, under a neon cross with kitschy angel wings, belting out another powerful number, you cannot say for a minute you don’t get your money’s worth. Backed up by a strong, talented cast, Burke really has it all, and as she gave her all to us, fully deserved her standing ovation.

Reviewer: Lisa Michel Williams

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