Review: Nuns and disco find comic communion in winning ‘Sister Act’ at San Diego Musical Theatre


“Sister Act,” you had me at “everybody transubstantiate!”

Actually, San Diego Musical Theatre’s infernally hard-to-resist production of this nuns-go-disco show cajoled me into the spirit well before that lyric, which comes in the Act 2 opener “Sunday Morning Fever.” (Confession: I had to look it up to remind myself that “transubstantiation” has to do with the wine and bread at Catholic communion. But the line sounded funny anyway.)

The way “Sister Act” draws humor from the accoutrements of faith while not making fun of believers — and while embracing the spirit that drives them — is one of the best parts of this lightweight but refreshingly clever show, inspired by the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie about a disco diva trying to save her hide by hiding out in a convent.

Yes, the central caper is wholly implausible, and the show’s heroine, Deloris Van Cartier (Miriam Dance), probably faces more danger from falling off her platform boots than from falling prey to the mob goons pursuing her.

But director Larry Raben’s cast at SDMT delves into the 2011 musical’s goofy comedy and ‘70s-drenched tunes with plenty of verve and vocal power, and music director Don LeMaster’s 12-member band likewise gets its disco on winningly.

The show puts at center stage a real find in Dance, who grew up in San Diego but has done most of her performing in other places. Here, she invests Deloris with sweetness, toughness and a pretty heavenly, very versatile voice.

The musical, as adapted by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, retains most of the story of the original movie, but moves the action from ’92 to the late 1970s and adds an entirely new score by composer and eight-time Oscar-winner Alan Menken (of Disney film fame) and lyricist Glenn Slater.

The story has Deloris, a struggling singer at the Philly nightclub owned by her main squeeze Curtis (slyly menacing Berto Fernandez), going on the run after she witnesses a murder by Curtis and Co.

Her high-school classmate turned cop “Sweaty” Eddie (a jittery Jeremy Whatley) comes up with the gambit to sequester her in the convent, where she falls under the watchful and very skeptical eye of the Mother Superior (an amusingly exasperated Sandy Campbell).

The other nuns wonder exactly what wacky order Deloris came to them from, given that her recitation of the Lord’s Prayer contains such surprising lines as “Howard be thy name.”

But when the Mother Superior decides to put Deloris to work on the sisters’ choir skills, she almost instantly shapes the ensemble into a powerhouse act that puts the groove into such tunes as “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous, Baby!,” choreographed with inventive zip by Luke Harvey Jacobs.

Dance gets strong support from Bethany Slomka as Sister Mary Patrick, who is hilariously fervent about nunship and pretty much everything else. And nun-related entertainment simply cannot happen in greater San Diego without the matchless talents of Sarah Errington, who busts out soaring, soulful vocals as sweet Sister Mary Robert (a role she played at Moonlight Stage Productions, where she also appeared in “Nunsense!”).

Donny Gersonde, Gerardo Flores Tonella and E.Y. Washington also lend their comic chops as Curtis’ flunkies, and there’s good support from (among others) Reanne Acasio, Jim Chovick, Kat Fitzpatrick, Eve Jack, Jasmine January, Trevor Rex and Susan Stuber.

While there were persistent mic troubles on opening night, the show otherwise looks and sounds good; Mathys Herbert designed the set, with its sliding stained-glass-esque panels; Michelle Miles’ lighting pops, and Janet Pitcher’s costumes are ‘70s-tastic.

The going can get awfully hokey toward the end of the nearly-three hour production, but even ye of little faith in nun-based comedy might find this one worth a pilgrimage.

‘Sister Act’

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through May 26.

Where: San Diego Musical Theatre at the Horton Grand, 444 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter

Tickets: $30-$70

Phone: (858) 560-5740