Monday, November 5, 2012


There are a few caveats that I have to follow in my life: Beware of video games based on movies, don't buy wine you see advertised on TV and be leery of stage musicals based on TV or movies. Like most caveats these are wise rules to live by but also like most caveats, there are exceptions.

I enjoyed the video game Tron Legacy, I like the wine Piat D'Or which was once heavily advertised on TV and damnit, I liked Sister Act the Musical, currently running at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in downtown Toronto.

This is a musical comedy based upon the movie with Whoopi Goldberg. As we entered the theatre I couldn't conjure up any strong memories from the movie but I do remember liking it. It was a comedy, it featured Whoopi at the height of her abilities but I couldn't really recall any music from it.

So I took my seat with a bit of trepidation, I do enjoy musical comedy (and yes as a straight man I can willingly say that but please note that as I type this I'm skinning out a wolverine that I caught with my bare hands while running naked through the forest ... and that did not sound the least bit gay) but I had this image of something forced; I know the movie was not a traditional musical, it was a comedy that featured some songs. How would that translate into a full on musical theatre piece? The answer: Pretty damn well

Firstly, this play is indeed a comedy and it's damn funny. The humour comes from several points of inspiration: The traditions of the Roman Catholic church clashing with the secular world, the fashion of the play's temporal setting, 1978 (god, not one of our finest visual eras, I guess that's why there was so much pot available then) the basic tenets of romantic comedy filtered through that time period and much more.

The book, by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, is not afraid to swing it's comedic portals broadly open and with a fine and brave Toronto cast, it resulted in a lot of flat out belly laughs. There are a few "themes" in the story of dramatic interest but it never forgets that it's a comedy. Yes, a "feel good" comedy that is prevented from careening into a treacle abyss by a few moments of sharp satire

The book follows the basic plot from what I recall from the movie: A Phillidelphia dico-diva-wannabe witnesses a gangland slaying and has to go into witness protection: That being as a nun in a failing Roman Catholic inner city church.

Our Donna Summer-wannabe is Michelle, portrayed in this production by Ta'rea Campbell. Ms Campbell gives the role everything that you could want: She inhabits perfectly Michelle's late 70's "sista" sensability, she can be tough as well as vunerable, sassy as well as still and has a voice that would be perfectly at home on any late 70's disco or soul recording ... and perfectly at home on the stage where she can shake the rafters one moment, and bring us up close and personal the next

She is equally matched by the entire cast. Everyone fearlessly plunges into the broad comedy and everyone has a voice perfectly suited to their role. Hollis Resnik, as Mother Superior has a lilting, expressive soprano that illicits memory of past singing  nuns and tempers her performance with strength and dignity, even as Michelle pushes her faith to extremes

One of the things I love so much about theatre, and any live performance for that matter, is those moments that catch us by surprise; when a song or a line of dialogue is married with a performance that, although we may see it coming, works so perfectly it takes us beyond what was expected. In Sister Act that moment was provided to me by Lael Van Keuren.

Lael plays Sister Mary Robert (all of the nuns have the first name Mary which as you can imagine springs off some pretty funny material) the convent's initiate, a young woman still deciding if she should take the vows to become a nun. She first comes across as shy and tentative and you just know she is going to have a "break out" moment; she does and although I saw it coming, it still took me up, it elevated me. Her song The Life I Never Led is written to be poingnant and Lael delivers it a voice that is clean, controlled and has such effortless power, I could have listened to it all night

As I said, Sister Act is a "feel good" musical so there are very few surprises, everything works out in the end. Perhaps that destination is a bit hackneyed and predictable, but the journey makes it all worth while.

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