As one schooled early in life by nuns — some of them pretty forbidding — I’ve followed their journeys through the culture landscape with keen interest.
In 1979, the young Christopher Durang weighed in with a dark and blistering satire, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.’’ In the mid-1980s came a much sunnier depiction of the good sisters in “Nunsense,’’ a hugely popular musical comedy that, to this day, always seems to be playing somewhere.
In 1990 a British film comedy titled “Nuns on the Run’’ featured Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane as a couple of blokes who disguise themselves as nuns to escape their gangster boss. Two years later came “Sister Act,’’ a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg that was built on similar premise but has proven a lot more durable, having been fashioned into a Broadway musical. The touring production of that musical has now arrived at the Boston Opera House, presented by Broadway in Boston, and darned if it isn’t kind of a kick.
Let’s stipulate that “Sister Act’’ is a machine-tooled industrial product all the way. It adheres to a strict formula — setup, song, setup, song — and the whiff of commercial calculation could not be stronger. “Sister Act’’ doesn’t even pretend to aim high.
But the show hits what it aims at, and, almost despite itself, breaks out of its own formula just often enough that it adds up to an entertaining evening. Under the direction of the ubiquitous Jerry Zaks, “Sister Act’’ rides a goofy, good-natured charm.
It’s set in Philadelphia in 1978, the height of the disco era, if that era could be said to have a height. The disco-flavored score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) spreads the goodies around, presenting quite a few members of the cast with a chance to shine. They grab it. Meanwhile, the subversive wit of Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu’’), who contributed to the book, can be detected throughout.
Ta’Rea Campbell heads the cast as Deloris Van Cartier, a down-on-her-luck singer (“Everybody’s getting discovered, and I’m getting nowhere fast,’’ she laments) who suffers the additional misfortune of witnessing a murder, perpetrated, in fact, by her own married boyfriend, a nightclub owner and gangster named Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs). Deloris sensibly takes it on the lam. To keep her safe while she prepares to testify against Curtis, a police officer named Eddie Souther (E. Clayton Cornelious) persuades Deloris to disguise herself as a nun and take refuge in a convent headed by a stern Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik).
So Deloris trades in her sequined minidress and thigh-high boots for a nun’s habit, or, as she calls it a “penguin dress.’’ The convent is struggling financially, but that changes once Deloris takes charge of choir practice and the hitherto-meek nuns discover their inner disco divas, teaming up to sing “Raise Your Voice,’’ “Take Me to Heaven,’’ and, inevitably, “Sunday Morning Fever.’’
Lael Van Keuren shines as Mary Robert, a timid young nun inspired by Deloris who literally finds her voice and belts out “The Life I Never Led.’’ Cornelious delivers a knockout rendition of “I Could Be That Guy,’’ while Resnik brings poignancy to the quiet, contemplative “Here Within These Walls.’’ It is Campbell, though, who gives the show its life force. She brings a rousing energy to every number she sings, including the title tune.
Look, a classic this ain’t. But it’s the dead of winter, the Patriots blew their chance to return to the Super Bowl, the Celtics are struggling, and so is the economy.
Chances are you could use a pick-me-up. The curiously likable “Sister Act’’ provides it.