TAMPA — An occasional pitfall of theatergoing is when you find one of those little slips of paper inserted in the playbill to announce a cast change, and there was a big one Tuesday for the opening of Sister Act at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Rashidra Scott went on in the lead role of disco diva Deloris Van Cartier, replacing Ta'Rea Campbell, who is not performing this week. Since Deloris (the Whoopi Goldberg character in the movie) is on stage virtually all night, this could have been a disaster.
No worries. Scott, who understudied the role on Broadway, gave a fine performance, right from Deloris' powerhouse introduction, Take Me To Heaven, typical of the infectious dance beat of many numbers in the score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics). With her big, glamorous voice, Scott was terrific in anthems like Fabulous, Baby!, Raise Your Voice and Sunday Morning Fever, but she also had a girlish, mischievous sense of fun that was charming (loved the choreographed hand and arm gestures in Take Me To Heaven), and her rendition of Deloris' ode to soulful solidarity, Sister Act, was touching.
The only discernible sign of unsteadiness came early in Act 1 during the duet section of Here Within These Walls, when Scott was too loud and overpowered Hollis Resnik's Mother Superior.
Sister Act, directed with plenty of glitz by Jerry Zaks, has a much-revised book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane. It is the rare musical that gets better in Act 2, because the first act suffers from way too much exposition as plot points are laboriously ratcheted into place. Once Deloris belts out her Donna Summer homage, the story bogs down as she witnesses a murder, seeks protection from an old high school classmate who is now a cop, goes into hiding at a convent and is transformed into Sister Mary Clarence, director of the choir.
Most of the authors' creativity seems to have gone into working in as many nun wisecracks as possible, a comic tradition that goes back at least to Sally Field as The Flying Nun and endless variations of Nunsense. Among the funniest are the boast that Deloris and her choristers put "the Sis" back into Genesis and Lady in the Long Black Dress, a Barry White-style ballad by Joey (Todd A. Horman), Pablo (Ernie Pruneda) and roly-poly TJ (Charles Barksdale), who purrs, "Put away that rosary, girl, 'cause I'm here to sweep you off your knees."
Other standouts are Resnik, who strikes just the right balance between solemn and silly as the Mother Superior, and Lael Van Keuren as Mary Robert, a timid postulant who is empowered under Deloris' tutelage and brings down the house with The Life I Never Led. Two male principals — Kingsley Leggs as Deloris' gangster boss, Curtis, and E. Clayton Cornelious as her cop-protector, Sweaty Eddie — are less effective, mainly because the characters are kind of sketchy, plus there's only so much they can do with the limited music allotted to them. (Bay area theatergoers may recall that Cornelious played the Caterpillar in Wonderland.)
Menken's music is the true star of Sister Act, though its dramatic impact is somewhat episodic and scattered because of the patchwork book. His evocation of dance club favorites like Sister Sledge, Hall & Oates, and Martha Wash and the Weather Girls is uncanny, and Doug Besterman's expert orchestrations keep things bubbling right along with lots of groovy guitar licks. Conductor Brent-Alan Huffman gets a good sound from the small orchestra, which includes three keyboards.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.