It used to be that big-budget musicals first premiered on the “legitimate stage” before being adapted for the screen by Hollywood.
That tradition has been flipped on its head in recent years, as popular films ranging from “The Producers” and “Mary Poppins” to “Billy Elliott” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” have been transformed into stage shows aimed at attracting fans of the feature film.
A case in point: “Sister Act.” Based on the 1992 comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg and Dame Maggie Smith, the stage version of “Sister Act” tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who witnesses a murder committed by her married mob boyfriend and goes into hiding in the unlikeliest of places – a convent.
Like the film on which it’s based, the Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s current production of “Sister Act” combines humor and upbeat musical numbers with a timeless “fish out of water” tale as the flashy Deloris struggles to adapt to a wholly – and holy – new environment.
Fans of the movie may at first be surprised to learn that “Sister Act” the musical features none of the popular girl-group hits of the 1960s that made the feature film so popular. The stage show also makes some notable changes to the story line, moving the setting from Reno and San Francisco to 1970s Philadelphia.
The change enables composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater to craft an original score that pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the soul and disco hits of that era while remaining firmly rooted within the traditions of musical theater. The show begins, for example, as Deloris and her marginally talented back-up singers belt out the discoesque “Take Me to Heaven” while auditioning for mobster Curtis in his Philadelphia nightclub. Yet when the action shifts to the Queen of Angels convent, echoes of Menken’s Academy Award-winning compositions for “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” can be heard in such tunes as “It’s Good to Be a Nun” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”
It’s an interesting juxtaposition that nonetheless works as the story shifts between Deloris’s two worlds. When Curtis orders his goons to find the missing singer before she can testify against him, he waxes lyrical about what he’ll do “When I Find My Baby” in a basso profondo disco number worthy of Barry White himself. Listen closely to the lyrics, though, and it’s clear that Curtis’s plans don’t involve roses or long walks on the beach.
Comic relief is also provided in “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” as Curtis’s cheesy stooges describe how they plan to find Deloris by putting the moves on the good sisters of Queen of Angels Convent.
As Deloris, Renee Veronica Freeman evokes memories of Sheryl Lee Ralph, who originated the role of Deena Jones in the Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.” The exuberant Freeman makes a more believable showgirl wannabe than Whoopi Goldberg, which makes her rocky conversion to sisterhood all the more comical.
Ably supporting her are Peter Jackson as Curtis, Joshian Morales as police officer Eddie – played here as more of a romantic interest for Deloris than in the film – and a flock of enthusiastic nuns. As Mother Superior, Patti Eyler provides the perfect foil for Freeman’s Deloris, adopting just the right tone of shock and disapproval while at the same time eliciting sympathy as she lays bare her fear of change and the evaporation of time-honored traditions.
By the time the cast of “Sister Act” puts an “Amen” to it, the audience has been blessed by a performance that offers equal parts heart and soul.
“Sister Act” runs through Oct. 9 at the Alhambra Theatre & Dining.