The start of the opening night of Sister Act was slightly delayed for the best possible reason: the queue of people at the box office wanting to buy tickets. Two and a half hours later, that near-capacity audience left the theatre buoyed up by one of the most joyous musicals around, superbly performed.
Deloris Van Cartier, a nightclub singer, witnesses a gangland shooting and has to go into hiding. The hiding-place chosen is a local convent, where she soon shakes the sisters out of their out-of-tune plainsong into becoming the gospel choir to end all gospel choirs. The attendances at the convent’s threatened church shoot up and enough money is raised to keep the church open. Deloris and the conservative Mother Superior come to respect each other and the climax is not just a concert given by the choir before the Pope but the realisation that they have changed each other’s lives.
It is difficult to play a part that is closely identified with one professional actor, as Deloris Van Cartier is with Whoopi Goldberg. The easy option is to mimic that actor, but Emma Fidler makes the part of Deloris her own in an outstanding performance. It is equally believable that her brassiness is attractive to a nightclub owner as that her feminine sympathy wins her instant friends among the nuns. Add to that a stunning voice and it is easy to see why she dominates the show to such good effect.
The production is actually blessed with three very fine female singers, and the voices of Pearl Nash as the careworn Mother Superior and Laura Jolly as Deloris’s main sidekick at the convent lose little by comparison with Emma’s. Verity Aldous as a postulant also sings well and brings a charming innocence to the part.
Another notably good singing voice is that of Adrian Lane, playing the policeman who protects Deloris and has had a crush on her since high school. Among the other men, Brian Travers is customarily reliable as the chief baddie, while his sidekicks, Mike Hill, Tim Marcus and Mike Peden, are suitably sinister and revel in their big comic number, ‘Lady in the long black dress’.
The production has one other enormous asset, which is the obvious fun that the chorus is having. The show is full of joy, which has got to come bursting across the footlights, most of all in the ensemble numbers. Helped by lively but simple choreography from director Brenda Ridout, the ladies ensure that that is exactly what happens. ‘Raise your voice’, when Deloris first takes over the choir, followed by the reprise of ‘Take me to Heaven’, are terrific; equally impressive in a quieter way is ‘Bless our show’ in act 2.
The set is very basic, except for the scenes in the nunnery, where the colours and shapes in the representations of stained glass windows are most effective. The band, under new musical director Nick Stewart, are as good as any I have heard at the Mowlem.
The only significant failing, as too often at the Mowlem, is in the sound. The principals are miked up for their songs but not for their dialogue, which is sometimes lost, especially if the band is playing under them, and the efforts of the chorus at times suffer in the same way. I couldn’t see any overhead or front of stage mikes, which would surely help.
Considering the town’s geographical position and the comparatively small pool of talent immediately available, the standard reached by Swanage Musical Theatre productions has always been remarkable. Sister Act raises that standard still higher.
Future performances: 27-28 April at 7.30.