Review: Sister Act (Lower Ossington Theatre)

sister-act

LOT’s Sister Act brings the 90’s classic film to the Toronto stage in musical format

You will likely walk out of Sister Act: The Musical, now playing at the Lower Ossington Theatre, with a smile on your face. However, you might not remember anything ten minutes after you walk out that door. The show has a heartwarming message, but features some exceptionally bland book and songwriting, which energetic performances can only take so far.

The chemistry of the nuns’ sisterhood and the standout performance of the Mother Superior are worth seeing. The writing, is, well… nunsense.

Based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, Sister Act is the story of Doris Carter (or “Deloris Van Cartier, like Cartier’s”), a vain wannabe nightclub singer in 1978 Philadelphia. When she witnesses her married club owner boyfriend Curtis murdering an informant, police officer and former high school admirer “Sweaty Eddie” decides the best place to hide her is in a cash-strapped convent with a failing music program. Deloris and the Mother Superior get along like oil and water, but they just might be able to save each other.

There is a lack of specific detail in most of the songs, leaving the characters’ desires (even in the solo numbers) generic, so it’s hard to connect with them. The songs tend to stop the show instead of moving it forward, and almost every number gets a reprise as if it were genius to begin with (the one exception being the cute twist on the secular-to-sacred lyrics of “Take Me To Heaven”).

The cleverest song is Mother Superior’s number, “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” which contributes to Amy Holden’s domination as the Mother. The young actress pulls off the gravitas needed for the older role with excellent voice work and palpable frustration. Amaka Umeh as Deloris can’t quite match her; she has a lovely voice and good comedic timing, but isn’t quite yet the force of nature the script demands.

Kiyoya Amoah gives a sweetly shy performance as Eddie (one that features a terrific double quick change), but I wished there had been any actual reason given for his presence as a love interest.

Much stronger is the theme of the love Deloris finds amongst her new sisters; she goes from chasing after terrible men and having largely toxic relationships with other women to reveling in sisterhood. The joy in the show is the focus on that relationship, which is where the best music comes from (much of it in the movie). Chelsea Jane Bray and Autumn-Joy Dames do very well here with the supporting roles of the bubbly Sister Mary Patrick and shy novitiate Sister Mary Robert.

Otherwise, performances are variable. Curtis (Steven Vlahos) was nicely oily but lacked the menace his character needed. Though his song about snuffing his girlfriend was well written, I wanted to feel some sense of actual danger. Likewise, his henchmen were funny but purposeless, and the Monsignor kept forgetting his lines.

The LOT uses canned music for most of their productions, and this is no exception. While frustrating from an artistic standpoint, it’s understandable financially. However, live theatre needs to prioritize the “live” part, not blast the canned music so painfully loudly that the performers have to strain to be heard. In a space that small, you shouldn’t have to mic the entire chorus. The cast have very nice voices, and it’s a shame that the harmonies get buried under the assault.

The set is admirable and subtle, with a showpiece in the large backing stained glass window. My costume designer guest admired the colour palette of the period-appropriate outfits. In my opinion, the choreography could use some work, particularly the big fight scene, which is filled with good ideas that don’t quite gel visually.

I loved the diversity of the cast and the range of body types on stage, but one moment that bothered me—in what otherwise seemed like a celebration of diversity—was the designer’s decision to show Deloris’ success in becoming “classy” by changing her hair from natural to straightened. The children in the audience seemed enthralled by the performance, but I wondered what message that moment was sending them. The message the book and lyrics are sending, certainly, is that it’s fine to be generic, which seems in opposition to the show’s indomitable spirit.

Details

  • Sister Act is playing until January 29, 2016 at the Lower Ossington Theatre (100A Ossington Ave.)
  • Shows run Thursday to Saturday at 7:30PM, and Saturday and Sunday at 3:30PM.
  • Ticket prices range from $49.99 – $59.99, and are available online, or through the box office at 416-915-6747
  • This show contains gunshots

Photo of Amaka Umeh and Amy Holden by Seanna Kennedy