A launch party was held at London's Cafe de Paris yesterday (3 February 2009) to mark the forthcoming West End premiere of Sister Act, with writer Alan Menken (pictured) and star Patina Miller on hand to provide a taster of what's in store.

The event was introduced by Adam Spiegel from Stage Entertainment, who are co-producing Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg (See News, 14 Nov 2008). Spiegel described the show as emphatically “not the movie”, and referenced another Stage Entertainment production, Hairspray, as “evidence that now, more than ever, audiences have an appetite for high quality, feel-good musical theatre in the West End”.

Whoopi Goldberg, who played the lead role of Deloris Van Cartier in the hit 1992 film, then appeared on screens around the venue to provide a brief introduction. “People ask why we're doing it differently on stage” she said. “Well, for starters, I'm Whoopi Goldberg, and you can't 'do' me! ... This is going to be a fantastic experience - we're coming at you with something brand new and unique.”

Members of the company, led by recently cast Deloris Patina Miller, were on hand to sing a selection of songs from the show, which hasn't officially started rehearsals yet. The numbers included “Fabulous Baby”, “Raise Your Voice” and the musical's climactic song, “Spread the Love Around”, which received a warm ovation from the gathered press and industry figures.

Composer Alan Menken explained his decision to transplant the story to the 1970s: “I've always looked for a project that would provide the perfect story to tell through disco, and this is it”. He then performed a selection of his best-known songs, from musicals and films including Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Hercules.

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com after the performance, Menken explained why he took the project on: “I was approached by the director Peter Schneider who said to me 'Alan, I've got three choices to write the music for this – and you're all three'. Flattery got him everywhere!” He added: “This is going to be totally our own musical, not a pale imitation of the movie. And we've got the best producers we could wish for in Stage Entertainment – we're in very safe hands”.

Spicing it up

Transplanted to 1970s Philadelphia,  Sister Act tells the story of disco diva Deloris, who, after witnessing a murder and being put in protective police custody in a convent, brings some soul to the church choir, much to the initial consternation of the Mother Superior.

American Patina Miller has been cast as Deloris, following a year-long search (See News, 30 Jan 2009). Miller, who will be making her West End debut in the show, spoke to Whatsonstage.com at yesterday's event: “I'm excited, nervous, scared, but so ready to get started” she said, adding, “I spoke to Whoopi and she told me to forget about her, that this is my time and my opportunity to do something different with it … I can't wait to start spicing things up a little”.

The 1992 Hollywood film of Sister Act grossed over $200million worldwide and spawned a sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. An earlier version of the musical was seen in Pasadena, California in 2006 and in Atlanta, Georgia in 2008. The lyrics are written by Menken's long-time collaborator Glenn Slater, while the book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner.

The company also includes Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior and Ian Lavender as Monsignor Howard. The production is directed by Peter Schneider, designed by Klara Zieglerova and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, with musical supervision by Michael Kosarin, costumes by Lez Brotherston, sound by Mick Potter, lighting by Natasha Katz and musical direction by Nick Skilbeck.

Sister Act opens at the Palladium on 2 June 2009 (previews from 7 May).

- by Theo Bosanquet