Sister Act, Bristol Hippodrome and touring

FOLLOWING the huge success of the 1992 film and the 1993 sequel, Sister Act was prime material to be adapted for the stage, with the Motown classics of the film replaced with new songs by Glenn Slater and Alan Menken, a book by Cheers writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, and with the plot ensuring that the action mainly took place in one location.   After starting in Pasadena, the show was a hit at the Palladium in London and then Broadway before touring the world.

This tour is completely revised, redesigned, and with a cast including some of the country’s top actor-musicians, taking the show to a new level, and giving Alexandra Burke, in the lead role of Deloris, a fantastic cushion of experience and support. Director Craig Revel Horwood is of course best know for Strictly Come Dancing, but also has a great reputation for his work with actor-musicians since taking up the reins of the great John Doyle at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, working with this tour’s musical arranger Sarah Travis on shows such as Martin Guerre, Sunset Boulevard and Spend, Spend, Spend, and more recently a national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, which featured four of tonight’s cast.

Burke, as Deloris, has a hard act to follow after Whoopi Goldberg in the film, but she makes the role her own, bringing just the right level of star quality to this role, and her voice is strong and powerful, but also subtle and sensitive when needed, and along with the voice she is also a believable comedy actor, so that we really care about her, and want her to succeed, and survive. While she may be a star, Burke is completely dependent on the strength of her supporting cast, and this production has a great cast. Leading them is Mother Superior Karen Mann, who can trace the history of modern actor-musicianship through her acting career, from work at the London Bubble through John Doyle’s time at York Theatre Royal and the Watermill to her recent work with Revel Horwood. She is every inch the consummate and sensitive actor, almost a female Tevye as she converses with God, a natural, accurate, passionate singing voice that is a great foil to the licks and trills of Burke’s, and a great trumpeter too.

Another seasoned Doyle and Horwood muse, Susannah Van Den Berg, is a very funny and ebullient Sister Mary Patrick, with a wonderful character voice reminiscent of a female Kermit, and a mean accordion and woodwind player, Sarah Goggin’s quiet and timid Sister Mary Robert’s wonderful vocal range comes alive in her big number about living life and Joe Vetch has a great voice as well as playing guitar and woodwind and good comedy timing as police officer “Sweaty” Eddie. The rest of the nuns play their instruments, sing their songs and portray individual characters as easily and as naturally as if it were normal, as do the men in the cast, whether playing gangsters, altar boys or down and outs, so that the onstage instruments are just part of the show, and it seems perfectly right that Mother Superior Mann gets to join the rest of the band on trumpet as she accepts that the sign she has been asking God for throughout the show is the very lady she has been praying about.

Matthew Wright’s set works well, with plenty of glitz and glamour in the disco scenes and echoey convent interiors when needed, and the 1970s setting gave him plenty of opportunity with costume too. There is a small supporting band off stage, led with aplomb by Greg Arrowsmith, but the overall effect is that almost everything you can see and hear is being produced live, in front of us, by that very talented ensemble on the stage.  This is a show full of energy, enthusiasm, extraordinary talent, and complete entertainment. The tour only continues until September, so catch it if you can.


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