Every once in a while you want to kick back and enjoy a big, flamboyant musical that offers spectacle, song, and simple, unabashed entertainment. That’s what “Sister Act” delivers –– not the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie but the stage musical based on it: A tarty nightclub singer in Philadelphia who witnesses a murder is hidden for her protection in a convent, where she blasts open the nuns’ staid routine. Deloris Van Cartier (her aspirational stage name) resists the sober Catholic discipline but ultimately discovers the value of sisterly bonds.
That easy moral is but the cherry atop the confection of “Sister Act,” which juxtaposes the sleazy world of gangsters and gals against the sequestered life of nuns and their priest, whose church, with its dwindling congregation, is up for sale. Reluctantly donning the habit, Deloris changes all that as she takes over the convent choir, infusing rock and rhythm –– and drawing mass audiences, eventually even the pope.
Premiering in 2006 and moving to London in 2009, “Sister Act” the musical reached Broadway in 2011. A passel of theatre artists had a hand in its creation: Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Newsies”) wrote the music; Glenn Slater the lyrics; Cherie Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner the book; with Douglas Carter Beane adding to the book.
Ithaca College’s current mainstage production –– ably directed by Courtney Young and cleverly choreographed by Aimee Rials –– catches this musical’s retro sensibility: both that romanticized image of chaste nuns in black and white habits and those wacky dance moves from the ’60s (like the frug and the swim). And the second act’s opening number, “Sunday Morning Fever,” is a nod to the ’70s you-know-what.
Christopher Zemliauskas’s orchestra effectively plays the upbeat, sometimes Motown-inflected music. But sound levels too often drown the lyrics; perhaps the Hoerner’s first six rows should be closed off to patrons. Three seniors comprise the show’s strong design team: Shifting between a broken-brick neighborhood club and a pillared stone church and cloister, Michael Hayes provides an apt, spacious setting, well lit by Indigo Garcia. Aria Sardella’s costumes are textured for the lowlife guys, pristine for the nuns, and wondrously dazzling for the priest.
All’s set to show off a nicely individualized cast of 16. (With so many local theaters limited to small casts, it’s a pleasure that the college stage can feature so many performers.) This talented ensemble is headed by Courtney C. Long, as Deloris, who wants nothing more than to make it as a singer.
Expressive and dynamic, Long has a commanding voice (though her articulation in the loud numbers needs work). Her Deloris is a deliciously raucous presence in the muted convent, where she finds herself at continual odds with the Mother Superior –– Madison Alexander, an Audrey Hepburn-nun lookalike with a superbly sweet, clear voice and a will of steel.
The sisters Deloris is turning from screech to song have distinct personalities, all amusing, from the fuming Sister Mary Lazarus (Sushma Saha) to the timid postulant, Sister Mary Robert (an excellent Nicole Morris). These veiled women blossoming, nay bursting, under Deloris’ tutelage include Sally Shaw, Amanda Xander, and Megan Lynn Schmidt.
Rhys Kauffman, the monsignor trying to save his church, is hilarious when he gets religion –– the religion of music, that is –– spreading his robes and waving the collection plate like a tripping hippie.
Deloris’s gangster beau, Curtis, is ruthlessly played by Ali Louis Bourzgui; his inept henchmen are a delightful (and nimble) comic trio: Jeremy J. Noel, Chachi Delgado, and Caleb Robbins. Their dance numbers are among the show’s funniest, most sparkling moments. Eddie, the semi-inept cop determined to lock them all up (and win Deloris’s heart) is charmingly played by Usman Ali Ishaq, complete with romantic yearning and surprising splits.
The disco delirium of the final papal performance waxes a bit too gaudy and show’s inherent narrative clichés must be overlooked. But ultimately “Sister Act” is a high-spirited, entertaining romp; Young and Rials know how to feature their performers handsomely.
“Sister Act,” directed by Courtney Young and choreographed by Aimee Rials. At Ithaca College’s Hoerner Theatre through Nov. 9. Tickets.ithaca.edu or 607-274-3224.