Mash up some John Travolta moves with a little Barry White crooning, throw in a flock of belting nuns and a truckload of bling, and what comes out of the Broadway machine looks like "Sister Act."
Based on the 1992 comedy film starring Whoopi Goldberg and a fabulous 1960s soundtrack (neither of which can be found here), the musical "Sister Act" opened on London's West End in 2009 with Goldberg as a producer. It ran on Broadway for 16 months, closing in June 2012.
The national tour plays Madison through Sunday, with eight performances in Overture Hall. It's big-hearted fun, a glittery confection complete with a gleaming silver 20-foot-tall statue of Virgin Mary.
At least, she looks that tall. Everything in this show feels a bit blown out of proportion.
Still, "Sister Act" knows how to have a good time. Ta'Rea Campbell follows Broadway stints in "The Lion King" and "Book of Mormon" by donning thigh-high boots as Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring diva with a bad news boyfriend.
Deloris opens the show with a catchy number, "Take Me to Heaven" (Disney favorite Alan Menken teamed up with Glenn Slater to write original music and lyrics). But she deflates quickly after Curtis (Melvin Abston) tells her she can't sing in his nightclub and gives her his wife's blue fur coat as a Christmas gift, then executes one of his cronies while she looks on.
To escape being Curtis' next victim, Deloris hides among the nuns in the Queen of Angels convent. Despite 12 years of Catholic school, Deloris doesn't remember how to pray. She smiles weakly as the nuns sing the praises of fasting, rising at 4 a.m. and "extreme self-flagellation."
Casting Campbell in the lead was a coup for this tour. She's a true talent, with powerful vocals she shows off in energetic '70s-style numbers like "Fabulous, Baby!" Her Deloris is flighty and immature but not unlikeable, a rebel by habit, yet driven to succeed.
Pitted against her is the intractable Mother Superior, played by Lynne Wintersteller with a lovely, pure mezzo tone. A trio of nuns — Florrie Bagel as round, giddy Sister Mary Patrick, Diane J. Findlay as crusty old Sister Mary Lazarus and Ashley Moniz as Mary Robert, a young novice with a balcony-high belt — are much the same as in the film, full of indignant retorts and naïve shock.
Unlike other religious(ish) musicals like "Book of Mormon" or movie-based musicals like "Kinky Boots," "Sister Act" doesn't have an emotional center to make it memorable.
Cheri and Bill Steinkellner wrote the story, which feels oddly rushed despite the two hour and 30 minute run time. In particular, a love story between Deloris and Eddie (Chester Gregory, with fine "Saturday Night Fever" moves) feels tacked on and insincere.
Some of the music falters, too. The title song "Sister Act," late in the show, makes one wince the first time. It's worse in a reprise.
As for reprises, there are six — nearly a third of the show's numbers, and mostly unnecessary. Sometimes the actors speak-sing the openings, to awkward effect. Sometimes they just belt the same songs louder.
And yet "Sister Act" has moments of joy. In the roof-shaking "Raise Your Voice" and "Sunday Morning Fever," Deloris, as Sister Mary Clarence, gets the nuns to "raise some heat/ raise some Cain" and "shake it like (they're) Mary Magdalene."
"Sister Act" is at its most entertaining when channeling the '70s, when the Monsignor (Richard Pruitt) drops into a low bass like a radio host, or when Abston, as Curtis, goes all Barry White in the not-really-romantic "When I Find My Baby." Original director Jerry Zaks likes quick changes between flashy costumes, and choreographer Anthony Van Laast drew inspiration straight from disco.
Surprisingly, the show's best number isn't sung by the nuns at all. It's a trio of Curtis' henchmen — Tad Wilson, Ernie Pruneda and Charles Barksdale — crooning about how they're going to romance every "Lady in the Long Black Dress" until they get to Deloris.
"I know what all your vows permit, and I don't mind keeping it immaculate," they sing. "I ain't no pastor, I'm a stone cold master of romance."
Ultimately, it's hard to begrudge the flaws. "Sister Act" doesn't take itself too seriously; no show with this much glitter and disco balls could. It's like the Bee Gees rewrote "Funny Girl" and set it in Philadelphia with a chorus of nuns.
If that sounds like a pretty good time, that's because it is.