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A soul to save

Times Staff Writer

HOLD off on the novenas for “Sister Act: The Musical.” The show, which opened Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse, has Broadway blockbuster written all over it. But it’s going to need a little divine intervention if it’s to become more than just another generically manufactured hit.

The whole project has an air of inevitability to it. Putting aside the clumsy lip-synching of its star, the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie most vividly came to life during the musical numbers. And though “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” made clear that this franchise wasn’t going to be a hard habit to break, the notion of nuns grooving soulfully under the naughty influence of a lounge singer hiding out from her gangster boyfriend is just too comically tempting a theatrical possibility to pass up.

Then there’s the high-rolling creative team, led by director Peter Schneider, the former Disney Studios chairman who was the man who brought “The Lion King” and “Aida” to Broadway. Even more name-droppable, eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken has written the music for Glenn Slater’s lyrics to ride on. And with a book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, Emmy-winning writers from “Cheers,” there’s definitely no shortage of Hollywood cred.

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It would be pointless to stand in the way of the production’s multimillion-dollar potential. And there’s certainly a good deal for an audience to enjoy. Yet who wouldn’t wish this movie-to-musical transplant delivered sharper delight?

For that to happen, it will have to take more risks in its next incarnation. The production moves after this to Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, which co-produced it in a joint gamble that is a credit to Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps’ determination to make his theater a major West Coast generator of large-scale new work and attention-getting revivals.

The problem in a nutshell is this: “Sister Act: The Musical” can’t figure out if it wants to be slightly louche like “Hairspray” or crowd-pleasing like “Beauty and the Beast.” Original instincts keep getting diverted down cliched pathways: Remedial plot points interrupt the high jinks as though we were a bunch of simpletons, and an energetic R&B; score increasingly gives way to schmaltzy tunes that could elicit groans from even the most pickled piano bar regulars.

Yes, the story is still mostly nunsense. Deloris Van Cartier (Dawnn Lewis), the lead singer of a wannabe disco version of Martha and the Vandellas, has serious boyfriend problems. Curtis Shank (Harrison White), an oversized thug in wacky leather duds, tries to weasel out of the nagging marriage question by giving her a purple mink. Infuriated, she attempts to tell him off but instead catches him and his goons knocking off some snitch instead.

Eddie Souther (David Jennings), a sergeant in the police department who’s been smitten with Deloris since high school, places her in protective custody to her shock and dismay. It’s bad enough that she has to be stashed in a church, but to be escorted there by the classmate formerly known as “Sweaty Eddie” is almost too much for a diva like her to bear. Needless to say, the seeds of a love story are sown.

“Welcome to the Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith,” squawks Mother Superior (Elizabeth Ward Land, in a well-sung but otherwise bland performance).

“So this is where all the virgins go,” Deloris incredulously replies. Reluctantly, she dons what looks to her like baggy penguin drag. Fortunately, her violet showgirl boots work with anything.

And so the shtick goes. It’s mostly fun to watch, though it’s not as funny as the film. The direction is too busy soft-balling the obvious to come up with anything freshly idiosyncratic. The comic bits that do provoke laughs -- for example, Sweaty Eddie’s big number, “I Could Be That Guy,” in which he envisions himself a player worthy of Deloris’ interest -- have all the subtlety of a sock on the nose. Jennings pulls it off because he reveals an ordinariness that’s too authentic to be a cartoon.

There’s something inherently winning in the “Sister Act” concept. But it depended on Goldberg’s everywoman ability to turn us instantly into her best friend. We can’t help wanting to hang out with her, even though Maggie Smith’s Mother Superior offers equally droll company as Deloris’ foil.

Unfortunately, the human dynamics get lost in the onstage shuffle. Lewis has an outsize theatrical presence (and a jumbo Chaka Khan wig to match), and she can belt a tune with the best of them, but there’s too much huffing and puffing for us to make a genuine connection to her. It often seems as though she really does have to rush back to her character’s old nightclub and put this nunnery business behind her. A more intriguing performance seems lurking under the surface, but she’ll have to slow down if we’re to get better acquainted with her unique personal appeal, which after all should be the glue of the show.

The supporting nuns supply genial color, especially Amy K. Murray as Sister Mary Patrick (the relentlessly cheery chubby sidekick memorably portrayed by Kathy Najimy in the movie) and Audrie Neenan as the sandpapery elder Sister Mary Lazarus.

Curtis, the Harvey Keitel mobster role, has been transformed into a ‘70s super fly sight gag, with White not adding much beyond his generous girth and game villainy. His henchmen, however, have a memorable “Float On” moment in “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” a song in which the boys get to introduce themselves and their astrological sign to a Floaters-like beat.

The funkier retro sound is infinitely preferable to the tired ballads that crop up in the overlong second act. Shy Sister Mary Robert (Beth Malone) is saddled with the worst of it. The title of her number, “The Life I Never Led,” says all you need to know.

Suffice it to say that the book never earns the dramatic arias Menken and Slater feel duty bound to provide.

The production design, featuring a monotonous metal scaffolding on a mostly bare stage, doesn’t help conjure the immediacy of convent life. This is a missed opportunity. Fictional tales about nuns are compelling because they invite you to spend time in a mysterious cloistered world, where unrelated characters are required to live together.

“Sister Act: The Musical” doesn’t exploit this natural curiosity. Perhaps in the theatrical life to come it will realize more of its comic potential by cutting the sentimental fat and encouraging more God-given individuality.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

*

‘Sister Act: The Musical’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse,

39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 17

Price: $40 to $100

Contact: (626) 356-PLAY or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Elizabeth Ward Land...Mother Superior

Dawnn Lewis...Deloris Van Cartier

Harrison White...Curtis Shank

Melvin Abston...TJ

Danny Stiles...Bones

Dan Domenech...Dinero

David Jennings...Sgt. Eddie Souther

Amy K. Murray...Sister Mary Patrick

Beth Malone...Sister Mary Robert

Audrie Neenan...Sister Mary Lazarus

Music by Alan Menkin. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner. Directed by Peter Schneider. Choreographed by Marguerite Derricks. Music supervision, vocal and incidental music arrangements by Michael Kosarin. Sets by David Potts. Costumes by Garry Lennon. Lights by Donald Holder. Sound by Carl Casella and Domonic Sack. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Music director/conductor Brent-Alan Huffman. Production stage manager Eileen Haggerty.


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