By BRUCE DENNILL
Sister Act / Joburg Theatre / Directed by Janice Honeyman
The technical team behind Sister Act clearly took a lot of pleasure in their work, as the production features some invigoratingly fresh visual ideas, including the sight – unexpectedly – of musical director Rowan Bakker dressing up as a well-known personality. One would think the musical’s being set in a nunnery would limit the scope of what could be included – what initially comes to mind is nothing more than black and white habits and cold, grey stonework.
Costume designer Sarah Roberts, however, upgrades and accessorises those habits, blinging them up to a point where they’re so loud they’re competing with the singers.
And production designer Declan Randall must take credit for a range of fantastic ideas, from the giant, scribbled cityscapes to the optical illusions that give the stage added depth to – in particular – the cluster of lights that dominate many of the scenes in the second act. At first, they light up in such a way that they symbolise the cross above the alter in the church, but through Randall’s machinations, they morph continually into a number of different form. It’s mesmerising to watch, and creates an effect not seen often, if ever, on South African stages.
Candida Mosoma as lounge singer and gangster’s moll Deloris Van Cartier has all the requisite sass to makes the premise off – a worldly woman on the run, as out of place in a nunnery as a diamond in a coal-heap, not only finding her place in her new context, but growing – seem almost viable. The range of keys set for her character by composer Alan Menken sometimes proved problematic, but only because the singer and actress appeared to have a mild cold or similar throat condition on the night.
Kate Normington as Mother Superior lives up to the second part of her character’s title with a performance incorporating both earnest formality as the most mature, responsible sort in the story and a capacity for spot-on comic timing and superb singing – her solo I Haven’t Got A Prayeris one of the high points of the production.
The ensemble work hard, with at least half the cast playing multiple roles as nuns, hookers, transvestites, alter boys, thugs and tax drivers. All deserve credit for being difficult to recognise when they change – proof of their chameleonic capabilities.
Some aspects of the piece are not as strong, though. The script doesn’t allow for in-depth characterisation, being – more than is usual for most musicals – mostly there to link the songs and establish relationships. There is also the occasional accent slip (though Phumi Mncayi as Curtis gets his gangster tones just right) and at one point there was the sound of something falling sidestage – hopefully a thing rather than a cast member, which broke the spell somewhat for the performance under review.
There was some confusion from the audience when the production ended without the showstopping I Will Follow Him (the finale in the 1992 film version) being sung. But the song is not part of the stage musical and the Joburg Theatre programme doesn’t include it so, though its absence may be a distraction for some, there’s nothing to apologise for on the part of the creators of this production.