Walnut Street Theatre’s ‘Sister Act’

Plenty of nunsense with a Philly flair

The rousing finale of Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Sister Act brought down the house. No one sneaked out just before the end, even diehard suburbanites eager to get to their cars stayed and clapped their way through a now-obligatory post-curtain encore.

Danielle Williamson and company. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

All the elements for success are in the mix: A musical about making music is a natural. Add singing nuns, with real nuns in the audience, and it’s a surefire hit.

Sister Act is the story of Deloris Van Cartier (Dan’yelle Williamson), a lounge singer who sees her gangster boyfriend, Curtis (Philip Michael Baskerville), kill someone. Afraid of being tagged as a witness, she goes on the run. The cop in whom she confides, Eddie Souther (Kent Overshown), nicknamed “Sweaty Eddie,” hides her in a convent where her singing talent helps save the convent and herself.

Name that tune (if you can remember it)

It’s a feel-good musical, peppered with clichés and some uncomfortable stereotypes. Alan Menken's music is lively, if not memorable, but it gets feet tapping. Williamson’s powerful voice carries the story, but it is the secondary characters that delight and amaze. Sister Mary Robert (Laura Giknis), a pipsqueak with the voice of a giant, grows up before our eyes. Overshown’s turn as a song and dance man shows his versatility, and Baskerville’s over-the-top gangster is just sinister enough to have us worried while we’re laughing.

Mary Martello’s Mother Superior also shines as a woman whose stern outer shell finally softens, and Ron Wisniski, as Monsignor O’Hara, only has to walk on stage to leave the audience in stitches.

Based on the 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, Sister Act is a natural for adaptation. The show is not quite the same as the movie — interesting how a female-driven story acquires more and stronger male characters in adaptation — but it has its own poignancy. The movie itself was a sort of jukebox musical, relying on familiar standards and a few hymns. For the stage, Menken, along with lyricist Glenn Slate (he’s also lyricist for TV’s Galavant), has created a rousing score that keeps the pace going, even if I can’t remember a single tune.

Set in Philadelphia, Sheri and Bill Steinkellner's book (with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane) allows for a set of Philly jokes that elicit the expected chuckles. It’s not profound, but it is fun, and sometimes that’s just what we want from a night at the theater. 

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