In Howard Hawks’s 1941 screwball comedy Ball of Fire, chanteuse/mob moll Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) hides out from the cops and her killer boyfriend by taking refuge in the house of seven dwar . . . er, academics who are absorbed in writing a new encyclopedia. Because opposites in Screwball World, as elsewhere, must attract, she falls in love with the chief bookworm, English professor and grammarian Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper). While Sugar sweetens Bertram’s temperament and raises his temperature with her affections (along with giving him some new slang terms for his professional edification), he helps her see she deserves better than the thug who takes her for granted.
Substitute nuns for nerds and you’ve basically got the plot of Sister Act, the musical version of Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 film comedy, featuring a score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. (The musical started out at Pasadena Playhouse in 2006 and took a while to hit Broadway, finally opening in New York in 2011.) No, there is no sapphic interlude between Deloris Van Cartier, the aspiring nightclub-singer-turned-informant who has to hide out in a convent until it’s time to testify against her ex-boyfriend, and the Mother Superior. (Instead, there’s a homicide detective who’s had a crush on the singer since high school.)
But just as Deloris gets the sisters singing in tune in time to save their home from secular gentrification (the musical moves the story from San Francisco to Philadelphia, presumably so we can get cheesesteak references and appreciate the Philly soul sounds in the score), so too do the good sisters give Deloris a greater sense of purpose than being the next Donna Summer. (The show begins in late 1978, when Summer was the indisputable queen of disco.)
In a 2009 New Yorker essay, Paul Rudnick (who wrote the original Sister Act screenplay under the pseudonym Joseph Howard) acknowledged that Hawks’s film was part of the impetus for the story, as well as Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s musicians, who unwittingly witness a gangland hit, hide out from the mob by masquerading as members of a women’s orchestra. (Billy Wilder cowrote the screenplay for Ball of Fire and cowrote and directed Some Like It Hot.) Pondering the nature of drag, Rudnick wrote, “Why is a guy in a gown, I wondered, funnier than a woman in a three-piece suit? I tried to imagine a disguise or transformation that might be more fun for a female star, and my thoughts turned to nuns. Nuns can be dictatorial, sexually repressed, and scary—and, therefore, entertaining.”
Through 1/2/22: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; no show Thu 11/25 or Sat 12/25 and 1/1, Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, 773-360-7365, mercurytheaterchicago.com, $35-$80.
The success of Sister Act, now in a ridiculously entertaining revival at Mercury Theater (which had its own semi-miraculous salvation story earlier this year, after announcing in 2020 that it was closing up for good due to the pandemic) rides on knowing when to pump the brakes on the campy Catholicism and allow the simple moments of connection for Deloris and her newfound friends to shine through, even amid the bedazzled habits and disco lights that put butts in the seats at Sunday mass. She finds strength in female friendships she never had in her lopsided affair with the murderous Curtis (Denzel Tsopnang); homicide aside, he’s a married guy who treats her like dirt and won’t let her sing at his club. The sisters realize that they can raise their voices and question authority without betraying their faith.
So it’s a predictable story, to be sure. But in her impressive directorial debut, Reneisha Jenkins navigates the formulaic plot points and the shifts in tone skillfully, trusting her energetic ensemble to know how to share the spotlight. Mercury artistic director Christopher Chase Carter’s clever choreography also kicks things up to 11 onstage, while music director Diana Lawrence keeps the four-piece band swinging in the balcony and Marquecia Jordan’s costumes add glitz and wit.
Truthfully, that spotlight mostly lands on Alexis J. Roston’s Deloris, who is an absolutely adorable firecracker in the role. But she’s got all her sisters with her, including Jane Grebeck-Brewer’s stiff-necked-but-sensitive Mother Superior, Isabella Andrews’s sweet novitiate Sister Mary Robert (whose rendition of “The Life I Never Led” is a standout), and Jenny Rudnick’s acerbic Sister Mary Lazarus. (To my knowledge, she is no relation to Paul Rudnick, whose screenplay was converted to stage by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with an assist from Douglas Carter Beane.)
The show is definitely about sisters doing it for themselves, but the men aren’t completely sidelined. Ed Kross’s Monsignor O’Hara, a man of the cloth turned Catholic impresario, is a sly scene-stealer. (“And that is why we say Joan got off easy,” he intones in a delicious deadpan, giving us the concluding line of a sermon with such confidence, we feel like we’ve just sat through the whole loony thing.) Gilbert Domally’s detective Eddie Souther (aka “Sweaty Eddie”) delivers the soulful “I Could Be That Guy” with convincing earnestness. In “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” Curtis’s trio of henchmen (Ruben Castro, Marcus Jackson, and Austin Nelson Jr.) channel Barry White as they imagine how they’ll work their seductive charms on the sisters long enough to drag Deloris out of the convent. (“Picture you and me one sweet, sweet night/In a pool of votive candlelight.”)
Will this show change your life? No, of course not. But if you’re tired of the slings and arrows of stupid fate and want a sweet, silly, soulful escape with a tender beating heart at its center (contra Rudnick, these nuns really aren’t that scary), Sister Act has your balm in Gilead. (Even if, as Deloris says, “I still don’t know what that means.”)