‘Sister Act’ falls short of heaven at Berkeley Playhouse

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The 1992 film “Sister Act” is an indisputable American classic. Its musical adaption, less so.

To be fair, this alone is not the fault of the Berkeley Playhouse, for whom “Sister Act: The Heavenly Musical Comedy” serves as the inaugural show of their 10th-anniversary season. With lyrics by Glenn Slater (“Tangled,” “School of Rock: the musical”) and music by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”), “Sister Act” appears as an accredited choice, one that could draw in musical fans and fans of the Whoopi Goldberg film alike. And yet.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, “Sister Act” the film tells the lighthearted story of Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg), a lounge singer with dreams of grandeur who witnesses her mobster boyfriend commit a murder. She is consequently placed into witness protection — at a convent. While Deloris has trouble adapting to life as a nun, she manages to metamorphosize the sisters’ horribly off-key gospel choir into a wholly entertaining show choir, to the horror of the convent’s traditional Mother Superior (Dame Maggie Smith).

In its musical iteration, the setting is changed to Philadelphia in the 1970s, for some reason. The fan-favorite, 1960s- and gospel music-blended songs of the film are eschewed for original, ‘70s-esque tunes that do little by means of story advancement and even less in terms of emotional depth.

That’s not to say that the cast of the Berkeley Playhouse’s “Sister Act” failed to iterate these songs in their best light. Heather Orth’s Mother Superior was pitch-perfect in her musical prayers to the Lord above; her comedic timing and confident, patronizing tone provided most of the show’s genuine laughs.

Elizabeth Jones’ Deloris establishes herself as a powerhouse chanteuse from the show’s opening number, “Take Me To Heaven.” Yet when she was not singing in the opening scenes, Jones’ facial expressions were indiscernible. She finally relaxes into her character when she begins spewing frequent one-liners at the convent — eventually achieving the Whoopi Goldberg-levels of charisma required by the role.

Later on, Curtis (Anthone Jackson) sings of his search for Deloris in “When I Find My Baby.” The song was enjoyable not only for Jackson’s assured confidence and smooth delivery, but also for the incredible, piercing falsettos of henchman Pablo (Jesse Cortez), equal parts comedic and nostalgic for classic Motown.

And while the musical’s transformation of Lieutenant Eddie Souther from simply the cop in charge of Deloris’ case to Deloris’ insecure love interest was wholly unnecessary, Eddie’s actor Dave J. Adams did all in his power to make his audience dismiss that thought. A clear audience favorite, Adams shined in brilliant costume and choreography choices — which provided whoops and hollers when the audience wasn’t cheering for his ability to hit and hold impressive high notes.

While the Playhouse brought life to songs that existed purely to show off the talented cast’s respective vocal ranges, it is not without blame for some of the show’s disappointments. Many of the musical’s more outdated and stale aspects could have been altered or cut altogether, such as the second act’s pointless musical numbers “Lady in the Long Black Dress” and “The Life I Never Led,” which could best be characterized as half-hearted attempts to flesh out unimportant side characters or provide minimal comedic relief.

All the more, the background dancers’ costuming in Lieutenant Souther’s solo as homeless people appeared bafflingly insensitive. And while Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours was not explicitly stated to have special needs, described in the Playhouse’s casting breakdown as “in her own world,” at times it felt as though the audience was asked to laugh at her mental absences in a manner that felt acutely uncomfortable.

To the Berkeley Playhouse’s benefit, beyond the cast’s undeniable talent, its set design was beautiful and utilitarian, fittingly surrounded by the gorgeous architecture of the Julia Morgan Theater, itself a former community church. With the primary set’s beautifully carved wooden church pillars, reminiscent of the lovingly mocked Catholic church’s actual architecture, a certain beauty can be found. The beauty of Deloris’ presence is physically manifested in the scene-stealing stained glass window; in one of her performances, each shard is gorgeously, individually lit to every note.

This is but one detail indicating how even though “Sister Act” is far from perfect, its talented cast and beautiful set provide some unmistakable aspects of divine inspiration.

Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].