‘Sister Act’ musical offers cheerful irreverence at the Paper Mill Playhouse

SISTER ACT paper mill review

JEREMY DANIEL

Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, center, stars in “Sister Act” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

With its exhortations to “Shake it like you’re Mary Magdalene!” and “Boogie till you feel your spirit move!” — not to mention its timeless line about “celibate nuns shaking their buns” — the musical “Sister Act” offers a cheerful brand of mainstream irreverence that has clearly struck a chord in the general public.

“Sister Act” began life, of course, as a 1992 his film starring Whoopi Goldberg as an earthy singer who hides from her gangster boyfriend in a convent and ends up teaching the stuffy sisters how to embrace music, and life. “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” came out in ’93, and a “Sister Act 3” is reportedly in the works. The musical debuted in Pasadena in 2006 and ran on Broadway in 2011 and 2012.

EVAN ZIMMERMAN FOR MURPHYMADE

Jennifer Allen, left, with Nicole Vanessa Ortiz in “Sister Act.”

Now it’s at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, in a lavish production starring Newark native Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, who handles her leading-lady role with great poise, though members of the large, first-rate cast threaten to steal the show.

The musical ends with a number titled “Spread the Love Around,” and I got the impression that’s what the musical’s creators (composer Alan Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater and book co-writers Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner) adopted as their philosophy when putting the show together.

Though Ortiz’s character, Doloris Van Cartier, is at the center of the story, the show peaked, for me, in dynamic soul-searching second-act numbers by two other characters — the convent’s stuffy but ultimately sympathetic Mother Superior (Jennifer Allen) and young, inexperienced Sister Mary Robert (Belinda Allyn), who was inspired by Doloris to be true to herself.

Meanwhile, the three henchmen of Deloris’ boyfriend Curtis (Akron Watson) — TJ (Ryan Gregory Thurman), Joey (Todd A. Horman) and Pablo (Anthony Alfaro) — get the show’s funniest number: “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” in which these dense thugs try to sell themselves as smooth ladies men, with cartoonishly absurd results.

Doloris has a big moment in Act 2, too: The disco-diva fantasy “Fabulous, Baby!” followed by the heart-tugging “Sister Act” ballad. But it seems a bit anti-climactic: The glitz and glitter can’t top the more emotionally gripping Mother Superior and Sister Mary Robert numbers.

EVAN ZIMMERMAN FOR MURPHYMADE

Belinda Allyn, center, co-stars in “Sister Act.

And that’s fine. All the characters mentioned above, as well as others — Deloris’ tentative-but-then-assertive love interest Eddie (Jarran Muse), for instance, and the endearingly goofy Sister Mary Patrick (Kara Mikula) — have some great moments, too. So while “Sister Act” doesn’t pack much of a punch as the story of one women’s triumph, it has enough funny or genuinely touching moments to make it worth seeing.

The story is set in the ’70s, and the script is peppered with ’70s-centric references to Barry White, Diahann Carroll, Donna Summer, quaaludes and so on. The script also is full of the kind of snappy dialog that is somewhat reminiscent of sitcoms of that era.

“If I put on this dress, I’ll drop dead,” says Deloris of her nun’s habit, after she arrives at the convent. “Well, then, we have a plan,” smirks the Mother Superior.

“Oh, my God, somebody shot a Smurf!” one of Deloris’ backing singers says when Curtis gives her a blue fur coat. (The Smurfs, of course, were more of an ’80s thing, but you can’t worry about things like that. Or the fact that there is a rap number when rap, in fact, was still an underground phenomenon at the time that the action is taking place.)

Jerry Zaks, who directed the Broadway production, and Anthony Van Laast, who directed, gets those credits here again, with direction “recreated” by Steven Beckler and choreography “recreated” by Janet Rothermel. Costume designer Lez Brotherston helps immensely in creating a ’70s vibe; check out those fabulous disco duds at the top of this page, for instance.

Scenic designer Klara Zieglerova’s work is less time-specific, though she has put together an imposingly ornate church sanctuary and an appropriately over-the-top discotheque-like setting for the disco fantasy number.

At the risk of reading too much into what is essentially a light bit of entertainment … It seems to me that the message of “Sister Act” is more powerful now than it was in 1992. Different segments of the population — in terms of culture as well as politics — have become not only polarized, but so firmly entrenched in that polarization, that they are basically unmovable. It’s a nice fantasy that one side could win the other side over with nothing to work with besides some catchy music and an open heart.

“Sister Act” will be presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through June 26. Visit PaperMill.org.

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