Whoopi Goldberg, who carried the “Sister Act” film franchise in the early 1990s, returns as a lead producer of the Broadway version of the comedy. And just as the films confirmed Goldberg’s box office appeal, so the show is likely to sprinkle stardust on a roof-raising singer named Patina Miller.
Miller plays that supreme wannabe Deloris Van Cartier, who witnesses her married boyfriend (Kingsley Leggs) killing a colleague of dubious loyalty.
This instantly makes her the next target. She’s turned over to shy cop Eddie Souther, who’s had a crush on her since high school. Sweaty Eddie places her for protection in the care of Mother Superior (Victoria Clark, playing a top nun who seems, happily, on loan from “The Sound of Music”).
Miller’s big, brassy voice and unwholesome swagger inject just the right amount of sizzle into the proceedings. In short order, she transforms a group of mousy nuns from meek choir singers to foot-stomping, palm-waving, ear-splitting cheerleaders for Jesus.
Praise the Lord, or Jerry Zaks, the enterprising director who has turned a chancy enterprise, which debuted in London, into a ripping goodtime hit.
When the sisters sing, “Yes, the world’s an oyster, when you’re locked inside a cloister,” Patina, renamed Sister Clarence, mutters, “Kill me now.”
Soon she has the sisters summoning the rafters with one gospel belter after another. Crowds return to the faltering church, the donation baskets overflow and the Pope wants to check them out.
Zaks (who became a star himself directing another Catholic Church satire, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You”) brought in jokesmith Douglas Carter Beane to liven up the script by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner. But the strong points are the songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. The score sure isn’t Rodgers and Hammerstein, but works like crazy to win you over.
Inevitably it does, despite a hokey story that brings Deloris together with Eddie (Chester Gregory, a goofy but endearing foil to the top banana).
The sisters sing in a hilariously over-the-top cathedral setting by Klara Zieglerova. There are dazzling costumes by Lez Brotherston, aptly revelatory lighting by Natasha Katz and spirited dancing by Anthony Van Laast.
Nothing unexpected happens in “Sister Act,” a fairy tale we already know. But it’s delivered with exceptional glee and polish.
At the Broadway Theatre, 1861 Broadway at 53rd Street. Information: +1-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)