In the often cursed genre of movies-turned-musicals, “Sister Act” doesn’t exactly merit a “hallelujah” chorus, but it more than deserves an “amen.” Or two.
At The Smith Center through Sunday — how appropriate — “Sister Act” doesn’t break any new ground. And it almost runs some of its tried-and-true elements into the ground.
But if all you’re seeking is a good time with some good songs — signed, sealed and delivered by a capable cast — “Sister Act” fills the bill.
Just don’t expect a fully faithful screen-to-stage translation.
Never fear, this adaptation follows the same basic outline as the 1992 movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg. (Who, far from coincidentally, is one of the musical’s multiple producers.)
You remember: When struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier inadvertently witnesses her gangster boyfriend bumping someone off, she winds up in protective custody — inside a Catholic convent, where her brassy ’tude clashes with the holier-than-thou existence of the Mother Superior.
In the movie, which came with a Motown-heavy soundtrack, Deloris was a seen-it-all Reno lounge singer.
This version — with a new score by multiple Oscar winner Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) and lyricist Glenn Slater (“Tangled”) — shifts the action to disco-era Philadelphia, where Deloris (Ta-Rea Campbell) has metamorphosed from plain old Doris Carter to a wannabe disco diva dreaming of Donna Summer-style success.
That is, until her smoothie boyfriend, Curtis, (the smilingly sinister Melvin Abston) shows his true (murderous) nature, prompting Deloris to seek police protection. Which conveniently reunites her with her old high school classmate “Sweaty” Eddie Souther (an earnest Chester Gregory, reprising his original Broadway role), who’s always had a crush on her. But of course.
“Sister Act’s” central relationship, however, emerges when Eddie stashes Deloris at South Philly’s Queen of Angels, where the Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) regards the convent’s newest resident with withering dread. Even, and especially, when Deloris transforms Queen of Angels’ off-key choir of nuns into soul sisters supreme.
And when those nuns — the giggly (Florrie Bagel), the meek (Ashley Moniz) and the acerbic (Diane J. Findlay, who once upon a time performed in “Hallelujah Hollywood” at the old MGM Grand, now Bally’s) — get down and get funky, “Sister Act” gets fun.
Even with punched-up punch lines from “Xanadu’s” Douglas Carter Beane, the show’s book (by “Cheers” Emmy winners Cheri and Bill Steinkellner) never transcends the story’s sitcom-stale premise.
Fortunately, veteran director Jerry Zaks (a quadruple Tony Award winner) guns the engines and plows ahead anyway, patching over the patchy script with genially zany shtick that emphasizes the real star of the show: the musical routines.
“Sister Act’s” ’70s setting provides plenty of opportunity for sly musical parody, and Menken obliges with witty spoofs of upbeat dance romps and slow soul jams alike. Slater’s lyrics occasionally degenerate from clever to crass, but with the big-voiced cast members singing their hearts out, they manage to sell even the preachiest, most perfunctory songs.
As Deloris, Campbell tempers her blast-the-rafters vocals and in-your-face sass with a touch of bravado, while Resnik’s starchy Mother Superior proves a welcome island of calm amid the surrounding pandemonium.
Ironically, however, it’s the supporting players — free from the drudgery of dragging the plot forward — who provide many of the show’s most winning musical moments. Whether it’s Richard Pruitt as Monsignor O’Hara, channeling his inner Barry White, or Curtis’ hapless henchmen (Charles Barksdale, Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda) serving up an uproariously overwrought ballad of sleazy seduction, their lively numbers keep “Sister Act” humming.
Which, ultimately, proves the point. Even when there’s no reason to believe, “Sister Act” somehow makes you a believer all the same.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272