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Review Round-up: Critics Find Miller's Act Divine

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For the screen-to-stage crossover of Sister Act , it took Whoopi Goldberg and her co-producers at Stage Entertainment a year to find and cast 24-year-old American newcomer Patina Miller as Deloris van Cartier, the part played in the original 1992 film by Goldberg herself (See News, 30 Jan 2009). And judging by the morning’s reviews following the glitzy opening last night (2 June 2009, previews from 7 May) at the West End’s London Palladium, the casting was worth the time and effort. It seems a new star has well and truly been born.

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.

The 1992 Hollywood film of Sister Act grossed over $200million worldwide and spawned a sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. The musical – which, in an earlier version in the US, was seen in Pasadena, California in 2006 and in Atlanta, Georgia in 2007 – has an original score by Alan Menken, best known for his work on Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, with lyrics by his long-time collaborator Glenn Slater. The book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner.

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.

Miller stars alongside Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior (played by Maggie Smith in the film) in a cast that also features Ian Lavender (Monsignor Howard), Chris Jarman (Shank), Ako Mitchell (Eddie), Katie Rowley Jones (Sister Mary Robert), Claire Greenway (Sister Mary Patrick] and Julia Sutton (Sister Mary Lazarus).

Overnight critics varied widely in their judgements of Sister Act overall, from champions who declared it a “triumph” that’s all at once “strong, funny and touching” to detractors who dismissed it as “hideously formulaic” “one-trick pony”. But when it comes to casting matters, there’s little dispute: “the best thing about Sister Act is the leading lady”. According to critics, Patina Miller has “personality to burn and a smile as wide as Wembley Stadium”, “bundles of star quality”, “a wealth of raucous energy”, “a terrific voice”, “warmth, humour, vivacity, “comic vitality” and “a funky, spunky stage presence”. As many critics noted, the show’s last resident was The Sound of Music; with the help of overnight star Miller – “she might have been unknown last night, but today all that will have changed” – it looks like long runs with nuns at the Palladium may indeed be “habit-forming”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “It’s good but not great, diverting not divine. The best thing about Sister Act is the leading lady, the number one nun Deloris van Cartier, played by Patina Miller with personality to burn and a smile as wide as Wembley Stadium … The joyous surprise of the Motown movie score is replaced by a jobbing funk and disco playlist by Disney and Little Shop composer Alan Menken with so-so lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (they produced and wrote some of Cheers) that makes The Sound of Music look like Noel Coward. It’s a one-trick pony, this show, with nowhere special to go once the nuns have shown they can get down on the dance floor as soon as get down on their knees … Peter Schneider’s production maintains a fizzing energy that is slightly too exhausting for comfort, and the sound system is wonky. But songs like ‘Take Me to Heaven’, ‘Bless Our Show’ and ‘Spread the Love Around’ will send audiences home happy enough.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “It's been done before, the reasoning might have gone, so why not do it again? Put a singing nun centre stage in a musical and watch the piece climb every mountain ... Whether or not divine intervention is involved, it’s a wimple-wibbling, habit-forming triumph ... Before Peter Schneider’s production builds up the unstoppable head of momentum that led to the quickest standing ovation I’ve ever seen on a West End first night, there are some dubious early moments. The hand-knitted charm of the film is ditched in favour of a far raunchier look, with Deloris (Patina Miller), overly full of attitude initially, and her low-life chums transposed into a Seventies blaxploitation aesthetic ... Once we find Sheila Hancock’s delightfully droll Mother Superior (‘God has brought you to this place: take the hint’) waiting for Deloris, sorry, Sister Mary Clarence, things take a distinct turn for the heavenly. Alan Menken’s attractive, gospel-inflected score kicks in ... Helped along by Anthony Van Laast’s energetic choreography ... There can be no disputing the evening’s main draw: 24-year-old Miller, who fills this huge stage with so many bundles of star quality that another dressing room will surely have to be found for them all. Her magnificent voice is rich, soaring and, crucially, unflagging. She might have been unknown last night, but today all that will have changed. Take it away, sisters.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “Singing nuns are becoming a standard feature at this secular venue. But the showbiz rockers of this noisily aggressive musical, co-produced by Whoopi Goldberg, are a world away from the cloistered charmers of The Sound of Music. What we have here is a show that feels less like a personally driven work of art than a commercial exploitation of an existing franchise ... What was originally a fairytale fantasy, however, makes little sense in its new, vulgarised incarnation ... In order to pad out a slight story, every key member of the cast also has to be given a number ... Alan Menken's music admittedly has a pounding effectiveness and the opening number, ‘Take Me to Heaven’, is skillfully turned into a hymn to religious, rather than sensual, ecstasy. Patina Miller invests Deloris with a wealth of raucous energy and just about convinces in her conversion from fame-seeking individualist to member of the singing sorority. Sheila Hancock lends the show some needed gravitas as the Mother Superior ... All too typically the nuns, in Anthony van Laast's choreography, kick up their heels like the Rockettes and prance around in gilt vestments that might be described as surplice to requirements.

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “And still they come, those musical stagings of favourite movies: Billy Elliot, Dirty Dancing, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and now Sister Act, with its original star, Whoopi Goldberg, transformed into its producer. Actually, the young American actress who replaces her as the songstress in a habit, Patina Miller, is the show’s great plus. Otherwise, a rather sweet, sentimental film has been hyped up, coarsened, given what — were the Palladium flown to Times Square — we’d call the big, brash Broadway treatment ... The film’s point was that Deloris liberates the nuns’ voices while they liberate her spirit. She puts modern soul into their Salve Regina, they put Salve Regina into her modern soul. But there’s no gentle piety here ... There’s less deft comedy, but much more music, most of it indebted to the 1970s, where the action is now set. That lets Alan Menken, the composer, have a lot of catchy fun with period rock and disco ... And that lets Patina Miller display the first of her star qualities, a terrific voice. Add warmth, humour, vivacity — and you’ve a star who lacks Whoopi’s wry vulnerability but adds dazzle to the razzle around her.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (two stars) – “Call me a miserable old monk but I hated Sister Act. I hated its artistic laziness, its predictability, its incuriosity, its idea that disco is divine and that spirituality can never be found in discreet and dignified worship. This noisy, pumpy, insistently American musical will doubtless be a solid summer hit for the Palladium. It will entertain thousands of people who are out for a simple night's fun and don't get their cassocks in a tangle, like I do, about church liturgy. Much of it is well performed. Just count me out. From the start there is basically one joke: namely, the spectacle of nuns grooving around on the dance floor. I know I may be taking it too seriously but I found myself recoiling sharply from this story's saccharine values and its bullying gaiety. The thing is as shallow as the Aral Sea. Hideously formulaic. Musical by numbers. Yuck, yuck, yuck … The evening's chief on-stage talents are Sheila Hancock, who plays the stern Mother Superior, and Patina Miller as Deloris … Miss Hancock is on fine form and Miss Miller, after an off-key start, shows herself to have a cheesy presence and a Merlin engine of a voice.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “What is it about Andrew Lloyd Webber and nuns? No sooner has The Sound of Music closed at the Palladium, than he books in this new musical about another closed order of holy sisters ... Whatever his murky subconscious motivation, he deserves our thanks. Based like most new musicals these days on an old movie, Sister Act proves more enjoyable on stage than it did on film. I caught the show at the final preview with an audience of regular punters rather than the usual first-night rent-a-mob, and the cheers and standing ovation at the end were both genuine and deserved. The book, by Cheers writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, is strong, funny and touching. And the disco-inspired score by Disney favourite Alan Menken, with neat lyrics by Glenn Slater, is a cracker. Frankly, what’s not to like, especially when you’ve got a chorus line of jiving nuns singing their hearts out ecstatically? ... The show’s real find is the American Patina Miller as Deloris. She has all the comic vitality of Whoopi Goldberg in the film, but she’s sexier and sings up a storm. When she’s belting out the disco-diva anthems you might be listening to Gloria Gaynor or Chaka Khan. She also has a funky, spunky stage presence and great comic timing ... I suspect this musical comedy about a nun on the run could prove habit-forming.”
  • Paul Callan in the Daily Express (five stars) - "Patina Miller belts it out with enough energy to fire a canon as Deloris … This American singer with the soul of gospel in her voice shines in the role and has every foot in the theatre tapping along to her infectious energy … There is no doubt that this girl, who has a fantastically expressive face, can part the clouds with the sheer volume of her voice … Sheila Hancock brings a splendidly icy disapproval to the part of the Mother Superior. And she handles the gradual thawing-out of the old nun with a sprightly verve … There is also a touching and noteworthy performance by Katie Rowley Jones as the noviciate Sister Mary Robert ... Everything buzzes along to Alan Menken's music and there are slick lyrics from Glenn Slater. All in all, as the subtitle says, it is a 'divine musical comedy'. Bless."
  • Tom Chivers in the London Paper (four stars) - “It's not an immediate success. For a while it meanders through sub-Lloyd Webber saccharine, only picking up late in the first act. But once Patina Miller's Deloris starts teaching the nuns about music and the world it bursts into vibrant life … Aside from the big chorus numbers, a hilarious Barry White parody is the pick of the songs. The whirling sets are spectacular. By the time Goldberg herself ambles on for the curtain call, the crowd is roaring. It's the feel-good show of the summer.”

    To see what our Whatsonstage.com theatregoers thought of the show at our exclusive Outing last week - click here


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