London Palladium, London W1
  Opened 2 June, 2009

Nobody expects watertight logic from a feelgood musical, but surely a wisp or two of basic sense isn’t too much to ask. It is, alas, from this version of the 1992 movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg. As in the film, nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier sees her mobster boyfriend murder a man and gets placed in witness protection in a convent, where she transforms the dull, tuneless choir into a soul/gospel powerhouse. Question 1: did it not strike anyone at any point that a choir who can’t sing do not make a natural subject for a musical? Most of the first act at least will have to be either tuneless or nonsensical. Writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner take the nonsense option, with the nuns getting a big, complex jubilee number before the first choir practice at which their lack of fizz is supposedly revealed.
But Deloris, alias Sister Mary Clarence, shows the choir how to connect with the soul in soul music. Question 2: did anyone stop to ask whether this central metaphor – finding the spirit as well as the human passion in soul – would still work when expressed in terms of an original score rather than the soul standards used in the film? Here the nuns do not simply commandeer classic numbers, but find themselves making up complex new songs in an idiom supposedly utterly alien to them. Oh, but it’s a musical, it doesn’t have to make sense. But yes, it does, some at least. Next to great holes like this, it becomes hairsplitting to note that a story now set in 1978 Philadelphia is scored by Alan Menken predominantly in the Motown style of soul rather than the creamier Philly sound, or that one aged sister hits upon rap over a year before the Sugarhill Gang. Either none of these things occurred to the creative team or they didn’t think it mattered; in other words, they reckoned that even “premium” ticket prices of £85 plus booking fees do not buy ordinary, everyday coherence.
It’s not a brainless show; Glenn Slater’s lyrics are often enjoyably sharp. It’s just that whenever the choice arises between creative and commercial smarts, commercial wins out every time. Director Peter Schneider spent 17 years as president of feature animation at the Walt Disney Studios, and correspondingly does his best to remove any third dimension from the performances of his cast. (Only the redoubtable Sheila Hancock in the role of the Mother Superior resists.) Gangster Shank and his minions get the kind of blaxploitation-style scenes that can be successfully ironised on celluloid but are much dodgier in the flesh. Overall, what had been an unlikely yarn onscreen becomes a cheesy fantasia onstage.

Patina Miller as Deloris has a strong voice which largely avoids currently fashionable Macy Grayisms and exits through the mouth rather than the nose, and is ably supported by the occupants of the various sidekick roles (shy nun, tubby nun, old nun). But the closing number, when Deloris and the Mother Superior come together in a cloudily godly yet also respectably humanistic agreement that what really matters is Love, is one more subsidence in a show whose structure collapses under the scrutiny even of a moderately curious nine-year-old. Oh, but it’s only a bit of fun, after all. Indeed, that’s all it is, at best. Are we really worth no more than this?
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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