Distant Relation: ‘Sister Act: The Musical’ at Berkeley Playhouse

Sister Act at Berkeley Playhouse banner

“Who you callin’ a bitch?!”
– Queen Latifah, “U.N.I.T.Y”, Black Reign (1993)

At the risk of dating myself, dear reader, do you remember when SNL began poking fun at The View in the ‘90s? It would always begin with host Barbara Walters (Cheri Oteri) narrating that she “always wanted to do a show with women of different generations, backgrounds, and views” before breaking down her co-stars into specific stereotypes. When she got to Tracy Morgan’s drag take on Star Jones, Oteri-Walters would describe her as “a sassy Black woman like I’ve seen on tv.”

I thought of that quote a lot watching the stage adaptation of Sister Act. Whereas I walked into SF Playhouse’s recent production of La Cage aux Folles without having somehow seen either the original French film or the American remake The Birdcage, I’m all-too-familiar with fellow ‘90s VHS mainstay, Sister Act. In fact, I’m not only familiar with the film (and its ill-advised sequel co-starring a young Lauryn Hill and Jennifer Love Hewitt), but the many of the details surrounding its production. For instance, I know that it was conceived as a star vehicle for Bette Midler, and that upon replacing Midler, Whoopi Goldberg brought in her own screenwriter to do one of the film’s countless rewrites (said screenwriter being the late, great Carrie Fisher).

The fact that a Black woman like Goldberg took over is significant in how it proves that marginalized peoples are just as capable as their White counterparts. Deloris Van-Cartier’s race is almost never brought up (save for a few roundabout lines, like the Mod Squad reference), with the film-makers instead mining the comedy from the presence of a secular entertainer in a devoutly religious environment. With the film establishing the character as a Black woman, there’s nothing wrong another adaptation solidifying that character trait. Unfortunately, book writers Bill Steinkellner, Cheri Steinkellner, and Douglas Carter Beane seem to only be familiar with the “sassy Black women” they’ve seen on television.

Sister Act at Berkeley Playhouse set

Set by Mark Mendelson. Photo by Me.

It’s Christmas time in Philly, 1977, and Deloris Van-Cartier dreams of being a star. Unfortunately, she’ll have to settle for her regular singing gig at the club owned by her gangster boyfriend Curtis. When she goes to meet with him after a show, she accidentally walks in on him killing one of his henchmen. Fearing for her life, Deloris turns to the police to put her in witness protection. The “protection” in this case involves dropping the flashy performer into a convent in danger of being shut down.

As Deloris’ ostentatious style clashes with the Mother Superior’s dogmatic beliefs, the singer’s sense of showmanship proves to be a hit, both with the other nuns and the congregation. With the Mother Superior wanting her gone and Curtis in hot pursuit, Deloris’ love of the spotlight may be the one thing that does her in for good.

First things first: why was the time and place of the story changed? The original film takes place in then-present day 1992 (not at Christmastime), starting with Deloris singing in Reno before hiding out in the convent in San Francisco. So… why change it to ’77 Philadelphia? I’ll grant you that the San Francisco setting had no real bearing on the story, but why switch it to such a specific place and time? It adds nothing to the story and just makes the differences more glaring. Odder still, there’s a moment at the start of Act II – which moves the action up to New Year’s Day ’78 – in which one of the dresses in the gaudy, anachronistic “hip-hop” style of the ‘80s (sideways cap, big chain) with Kanye-style Venetian-blind shades from the 2000s.

I bring this up first because it most clearly illustrates how the playwrights behind this musical didn’t put a lot of thought into what they were doing.

And then there’s Deloris. As I mentioned above, the film benefits from not being saddled with overt racial politics, no matter how conspicuous one Black nun in an all-White order would be. The film is no masterpiece, but it works by knowing exactly what it is and what it’s about. The play is a different story. It’d be one thing if the new ethnic specificity were purely for the sake of adding another dimension to the character (much like the way Raúl Juliá’s performance in The Addams Family – another ‘90s VHS staple – has led to several stage productions putting greater emphasis on the character’s Spanish heritage). But the script for this show resorts to every neck-swiveling, finger-snapping, “Oooh, girl…”-spouting Black woman cliché it can amalgamate into the character of Deloris. What’s more, Italian-American gangster Vincent LaRocca is changed to Black gangster Curtis Jackson (which happens to be 50 Cent’s real name), and Det. Eddie Souther – played with dignity by the late Bill Nunn – is reduced to “Sweaty Eddie” the wimp. It would be easy to suggest that Beane and the Steinkellner’s didn’t do it intentionally, but given the way Mother Superior has the best one-liners, there was certainly some subtle racism occurring, if not overtly.

And yet, that’s not the fault of this production. The performers here are doing their best to elevate some poorly-written material, and for that they should be applauded. Lead actress Elizabeth Jones has both the pipes and the training Whoopi Goldberg lacked. When Jones sings, one truly believes that Deloris was meant to be a bigger star. Also great is the always-reliable Heather Orth as the Mother Superior. I first saw Orth four years ago, when her performance was the sole redeeming grace of an otherwise mediocre production of Carrie: The Musical. Here, her performance gives the Mother both authority and heart, while her singing fills the theatre.

Though Eddie may have been downgraded in the story, Dave Abrams makes the most of every spotlight-grabbing moment he gets. So too does Anthone Jackson’s Curtis, whose ironically-titled song “When I find My Baby” is one of the show’s many highlights. In fact, all of the songs are good – composer Alan Mencken (The Little Mermaid, Little Shop of Horrors) and lyricist Glenn Slater are better song-makers than their collaborators are playwrights.

Under the direction of Lexie Lazear, the production side of the show holds up to the high standards that have come to define Berkeley Playhouse shows. Though there are some moments where she seems unsure of how stage the action, leaving several characters just standing around (eg. the beginning of “Fabulous Baby” and the cop with the handcuffed woman in the next scene), she by and large spreads her cast evenly across the stage. Although Cameron Pence goes for the spotlight a few too many times, his other choices set the scene well. Mark Mendelson delivers another wonderfully transformative set, this one switching from nightclub to street to bar to church right before our eyes. And if Bethany Deal doesn’t get recognition for Eddie’s double-break-away suit, then there’s no justice in the world.

Ultimately, Sister Act: The Musical is 2/3 of a good show: the songs are great; the production quality is also great; but the scripted handling of its lead character leaves a lot to be desired. I imagine the reason the writers set the show in the ‘70s was because they long for a time when you could be insensitive without people shouting that “political correctness” crap at’cha, amIrite? Still, if you can excuse the shortcomings of the playwrights, Berkeley Playhouse puts on another top-notch performance piece.

GRADE:                B-

Sister Act is scheduled to run until the 22nd of October at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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