REVIEW: Can I get an Amen? Sister Act raises its voice and raises the roof

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Whoopi Goldberg films have a proven track record of becoming hit musicals. The Colour Purple, The Lion King (she voiced a hyena in the movie) and more recently, Ghost. And this, Sister Act, one of her most famous roles, has followed suit. The show has been delighting audiences up and down the country on its current tour and this week, it was Sunderland’s turn to congregate.

Based on the 1992 movie also starring Dame Maggie Smith, the show sees Las Vegas headliner Deloris Van Cartier, here played by Alexandra Burke, on the road to becoming a superstar. That is, until, she is witness to a mob shooting by her boyfriend Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) and is whisked away by the FBI into the witness protection programme. And where better to hide a glamorous, over-the-top diva – a convent, of course. Deloris shacks up with Mother Superior (Karen Mann) and the rest of the nuns and in time, discovers her love of singing may not be so useless to the Lord after all.

Having first seen the show back in 2011 on Broadway, I was intrigued to see what this new production would bring. I love Alan Menken’s work – he is best-known for Academy Award-winning music of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas and other stage hits like Little Shop of Horrors, and this score speaks for itself. Opening number, Take Me to Heaven, and the title song show both sides of what Burke can do – the energetic disco queen and the softer, emotional side of a woman who seems to have finally found her place in the world. Raise Your Voice is the standout – although there are a lot of other ‘filler’ numbers. Songs like The Lady In the Long Black Dress are rather forgettable.

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At the helm as both director and choreographer is Craig Revel-Horwood, better known these days as the catty and hard to impress judge of Strictly Come Dancing. So much so that it’s easy to forget that he is in fact an award-winning theatre choreographer. Following up his recent work on the UK tour of Annie, this show certainly gives him plenty to work with – a Dreamgirls-style Vegas girl group and a gaggle of dancing nuns? Fabulous, baby! Unique to this production, the actors themselves are playing the music. So a mobster could be armed with a guitar and a nun with a saxophone – a quirk I thought would be distracting, but works well. The aforementioned Raise Your Voice and Take Me To Heaven reprise see Deloris and the nuns go full choreo, to great effect. The nuns continually steal the show with a tight bond on stage and like-clockwork comedic timing. Susannah Van Der Berg, Sarah Goggin and Alison Harding are particular standouts.

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Burke is nothing short of sensational in the lead role. Fresh off playing Rachel Marron in both the West End and subsequent tour of The Bodyguard, this is another part almost tailor-made for a diva like her. Alan Menken’s music is made for a belty voice and, just like Patina Miller before her, soars when at her disposal. Songs like Raise Your Voice play to her strength as a star – she may as well have had a divine light shining down on her as she paired killer vocals with a surprising knack for comedy. Her attempt at an American accent can make it hard to understand her at times, though, and sometimes hampers the laughs.

It will be interesting to see where her stage career goes next, though – if theatre is indeed something she is going to passionately pursue, she may need to take some risks and move away from parts that are, more or less, a version of her X Factor persona. If Sister Act is anything to go by, though, she’ll be back in the habit of delighting audiences again in no time.

Sister Act is at the Sunderland Empire until September 10. It will then tour the UK. For more information and for tickets, click here

Photos: Tristram Kenton

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