Whoopi Goldberg’s singing voice sounds like dry leaves being sucked through a vacuum cleaner.
That’s not an ideal starting point for the star of a musical. Yet in the London stage version of “Sister Act” it doesn’t matter. By sheer force of her comic gift, she’s terrific.
Goldberg has a long history with the show. She starred in the 1992 movie (and its 1993 sequel) as the heroine Deloris van Cartier, a lounge singer who hides out in a convent after witnessing a gangland murder. She was also one of the producers behind a musical version (music Alan Menken, lyrics Glenn Slater) that opened to rave reviews in London last year. Now for just three weeks Goldberg’s wearing a wimple once again. Only this time she’s on stage as the waspish mother superior who takes umbrage at Deloris’s wild ways.
The character is permanently unimpressed with her loud guest, and has a great line in put-downs. Goldberg does it to a T. At one point, she considers collecting the blood money on Deloris’s head, and joyfully imagines everything she could do with the cash. During a perfectly timed pause, everyone looks at her in horror. “Perhaps that was just a little uncharitable,” she smiles.
The stage role was created by British actress Sheila Hancock, who played the character with a wonderful, weary acidity. Goldberg makes her tougher, and more grounded in the realities of living in a moribund inner-city convent.
She didn’t even have to open her mouth to create a sensation. Her first appearance -- a tiny prologue given by the mother superior about the decaying fabric of the convent -- stopped the show. Minutes went by before the audience frenzy died down, and Goldberg was permitted to continue. Her ovation at the end was pretty much instantaneous too, and deservedly so. The rush of people desperate to get to the stage door and see her leave the theater was remarkable.
Patina Miller, who created the musical role of Deloris last year, is even better now than she was at the premiere. Her energy is more focused, and her timing honed to a razor-like sharpness. In her leopard-skin top and purple thigh-boots, she’s brash, loud and wild, and a permanent source of delight. Her spats with Goldberg crackle with comic tension.
The story is set in 1978, and Menken takes disco as his starting point. The soaring dance-floor tunes and smoochy ballads are given a clever twist. “Take Me to Heaven,” a sexy disco romp, is reprised as an upbeat hymn for the nuns. Deloris’s pursuer, Shank, sings a raunchy Barry White-style number “When I Find My Baby” in which he outlines what he’ll do to his witness when he finds her.
It’s not really a show about gangs and murders though. It’s about sticking by your pals, and finding friendship in odd places. Goldberg and Miller make it sizzle.
Whoopi Goldberg is in “Sister Act” through Aug. 31 at the London Palladium. Information: http://www.sisteractthemusical.com or +44-844-412-2704.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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