Review: Sister Act, Palace Theatre Manchester

Reviewing a musical that you’ve recently been in is quite different. It’s almost impossible to remain objective in your thoughts, even if you are reviewing a professional show and yours was an amateur one.

This is the predicament I found myself in last Thursday as I sat down in Manchester’s Palace Theatre to watch Sister Act, having myself starred in it last November with Alderley & Wilmslow Musical Theatre Company (AWMTC).

Whilst I had seen three amateur versions of the show (including my own), I was the first time I had seen a professional tour. I’ve decided to punctuate this post with photos of me when I played cantankerous choir mistress/ rapping nun Sister Mary Lazarus, mainly so you can laugh at me. I’m nice like that. Really taking one for the team here.

Anyway, I love Sister Act. It’s more than simply because the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name topped my list of most-watched films in the nineties. More than Alan Menken’s supremely uplifting and disco-filled score. Yes, it was Sister Act that got me back in the habit (as it were) of performing in musicals last year and everything that that has meant for my life since (but that’s another blog post entirely). So it will always have a special place in my heart.

Directed and choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel-Horwood and starring X Factor winner Alexandra Burke as nightclub singer-turned-nun Deloris, the show has been eagerly anticipated for some time. Burke made a name for herself last year after her stint as Rachel Marron The Bodyguard was well-received.

And she did not disappoint. A friend who had watched the night before said that Burke had been put on voice rest after the previous show but this was not apparent in her performance at all. Belting out all the power “money” notes more than proficiently, Burke also added some extra sass and Diana Ross-esque divaship to the role that any of the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race would be proud of. (If you haven’t seen this how it is meant as a huge compliment from me!).

The singing from all the cast was exceptional. Having been in the show I can tell you that you are usually working on a minimum of a three-part harmony  in addition to lead vocals with this show, though more often you will end up with much more in the biggest numbers. The harmonies are not easy to get and sustain in this show, but the cast of only ten nuns (including Deloris and Mother Superior) completely managed it. I was surprised to be able to hear the different parts distinctively for the majority of the show. Pretty impressive stuff.

The only slight disappointment with the vocals was that the score had obviously been transposed down a few keys (perhaps to be more suited to Burke’s voice?) so you didn’t get the full wow-factor of Menken’s original score. That said, the score is an extremely complex one and pretty high, so I get it.

One of the most perplexing things about this show was that there was no orchestra in the pit – even our own amateur production had a 12-piece, bursting with professional musicians. Instead, several members of the cast played various instruments throughout the numbers  – we learned in the bows that there was in fact a tiny “band” that was hidden backstage, though the majority of music was produced by the on-stage cast.

There seems to be a growing trend towards this in musical theatre at the moment – see my review of The Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon last month, with the cynical part of me suspecting this has a lot to do with cost-cutting. That said, the challenge of finding and casting singers /actors who are also proficient at playing instruments is a big one, and one that is potentially a struggle in amateur dramatics, as referred to in my blog.

Whilst I felt the instruments worked in the earlier bar scenes, one of my major gripes with the nuns playing them is that it just didn’t make sense in the context of the show. Whist it was a fun and light-hearted addition to some extent, the whole point is that the nuns are supposed to be completely musically inept until Deloris comes along. For the singing this was consistent – it remained perfectly tuneless l right through until the last few bars of Raise Your Voice (though in my opinion this hampered Good To Be A Nun). However, why would nuns who can’t hold a tune be able to be masters of the clarinet, violin or saxophone? Baffling.

My real issue with having the nuns playing instruments was that I felt it completely got in the way of the choreography. This wasn’t such a huge issue in Raise Your Voice but the wow factor that usually comes from the choir’s first proper performance in Take Me To Heaven (reprise) just wasn’t quite there. More than half of the nuns were playing instruments and as result, the choreography was limited to a few step clicks, clapping and Saturday Night Fever poses. – surely a waste from such a renowned Director/ Choreographer as Revel-Horwood? This song closes Act One and is supposed to be a bit of a showstopper but I just felt the energy wasn’t quite there.

Sunday Morning Fever – Act Two’s opening number – was much better (though choreography still lacking a bit), however the nuns still missed the glitz and glamour that I usually expect to increase as the show goes on. In fact, I don’t think a single sequin graced the stage until the “Gayboys” took the stage in Fabulous Baby (reprise) -again not exactly in-keeping with what Revel-Horwood is used to on Strictly - though the entire cast was bedecked in sequins in finale Spread The Love  where the choreography was also taken up a gear.

Other standout numbers included Mother Superior’s (Karen Mann) Here Within These Walls), Lady In The Long Black Dress, performed by Deloris’ gangster boyfriend Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) and his three stooges Joey (Samuel Morgan-Grahame), TJ (Sandy Grigelis) and Pablo (Ricky Rojas), and Deloris’ childhood friend and detective “Sweaty” Eddie’s  (Jon Robyns) I Could Be That Guy. 

The addition of the vomiting and urinating noises in this song depicting the street life outside the convent was humorous to a point, however perhaps a little overkill as at times in completely detracted from Robyns’ solid performance in what is his only solo in the show.
That said, I did really enjoy the ultra-disco section and dance routine complete with giant disco ball (this is the Revel-Horwood we know and love) used to finish the song. 

Sarah Goggin’s (playing postulant Sister Mary Robert) vocals in Life I Never Lead were sensational, whilst Susannah Van Den Berg’s Sister Mary Patrick and Rosemary Ashe’s Sister Mary Lazarus made for a great comedic pairing.

All in all, qualms and subjectivity aside, I really enjoyed the show and was tapping my toes throughout. Though I had to restrain myself a few times from jumping out of my seat and taking to the stage to do the choreography I had learned was quite a challenge. However quite inadvisable as we were sitting in the Gallery…

In sum , as Revel-Horwood would say , it was FAB-U-LOUS (Baby).

Sister Act returns to Manchester’s Palace Theatre  from 24-29 July 2017 and is touring nationally until 27 August 2017.


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