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Glitzy costumes and lavish sets can't dwarf the singing nuns
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Next gay theatre review: Sister Act

Fun nuns run amok to a disco beat

10.05.2012

Blasphemy! Disco! Nuns! Sister Act is a delightfully weird hybrid that turns out to be an utterly madcap mainstream musical.

There are no intentional deep thoughts lurking under the glitz, just a relentless desire to entertain. Like a puppy begging to play, Sister Act will stop at nothing to make the audience smile and join in. Sequins? The finale is blinding and packed with hilarious sight gags. Lavish sets? Don't bother to question how a rundown church morphs into the most spectacular religious nightclub since Limelight -- the LED tiles are not coincidentally evocative of the late and much lamented party-monster stomping grounds -- just gasp with pleasure. The foul-mouthed elderly nun -- the adorable Diane J Findlay as Sister Mary Lazarus -- doesn't just make off-colour jokes, she raps. The leading lady -- the sassy and sexy Ta'rea Campbell actually manages, with sheer vocal power and sexual confidence, to erase the image of Whoopi Goldberg -- doesn't just get wish fulfillment, she gets to strut it. The scene-stealing Hollis Resnick as the beleagured Mother Superior lays on the innuendo then sanctifies with a crystal-clear soprano and a last-minute change of heart that she is almost able to sell as realistic. There is something for everyone and then a second helping.

The plot is fairly faithful to the 1992 movie, but the setting has been sent back in time to the mid-'70s in order to pack the score and jokes with the tack and glamour of the disco era. The songs are adequately memorable but also liberally studded with earworms lifted wholesale from disco-era classics -- instant toe-tapping and the urge to do The Hustle. Every number is structured as an 11 o'clock climax: a slow, declamatory start; a smart and funny twist. Kingsley Leggs as the suave villain Curtis Jackson has the best, with "When I Find My Baby," while his trio of cohorts churn up an unlikely sexy storm with "Lady in the Long Black Dress," a lyrical lecture on how to seduce a nun, followed by an over-the-top finale. One of the delights of a disco-infused score is the latitude it gives the male voices; it is a wonderful return to the pre-Bieber days when male voices were allowed to be seductive and resonant. E Clayton Cornelious as Eddie Souther (aka Sweaty Eddy) goes from Barry White to Sylvester and effortlessly transforms from a joke to a sex machine with eye-popping and hilarious costume changes to match.

Sister Act works overtime to be inoffensively sacreligious. The audience erupts with laughter the instant the nuns appear. Why are these creatures who terrorized our youths so funny? Perhaps we're working out our anxieties and PTSD by mocking what we once feared? The evening we attended was graced with the presence of what appeared to be a busload of actual -- and fairly ancient -- nuns. Their spectral presence as they glided down the aisle to their seats was in direct contrast to the jazz-handing sisters onstage. "It's Good to Be a Nun" is a comic number wherein the nuns try fruitlessly to explain the joys of their calling; the joke lies in the sisters' apparent masochism but never delves deep enough to find whatever religious or psychological needs drive a woman to such an extreme life. While the audience guffawed at the song's clever lines and rhymes, I'm sure I'm not the only one who wondered what the nuns down front were thinking. If they were momentarily disturbed or offended, by the end they were, like everyone else, on their feet clapping along and suffering from sequin envy. There may soon be another order besides the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence accessorizing their habits with rhinestone rosaries.

In a fantasy sequence where Campbell envisions -- and the ensemble brings to terrifically tacky life -- her future as a disco star, she cries, "Glitter! Glamour! Gay boys!" The Catholic church, musical theatre and disco are all institutions that were created by and driven to success by gay men, and while Sister Act has peripheral gay characters and some hearty queer comedic quips, the omission seems glaring. Lesbians and religious-authority-figure fetishists may disagree. There is a tranny joke that is questionable -- though the feisty butt of the joke does come out on top -- and the slapstick chase sequence falls flat, but Sister Act is a terrific time spent at the theatre. And sometimes one just needs to get down on one's knees and enjoy oneself without overthinking.

Sister Act runs till Sun, Nov 4 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. mirvish.com

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