Plays that tease Catholicism, however amiably and affectionately, raise eyebrows and occasional picket signs in Mecklenburg County.
Naturally, Paul Rudnick’s gay-themed “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” attracted unhappy vigil-keepers to Spirit Square. Diehards even protested the gently comic “Nunsense” at Matthews Playhouse. So what might we expect when the national tour of “Sister Act” reaches Ovens Auditorium Tuesday?
“Hmmmm…” muses director Jerry Zaks. “I can tell you that, on more than one occasion, I’ve run into real nuns who saw the show and loved it. So I think, if the people the musical is about get joy out of it, then anyone could.
“I didn’t want the show to offend anyone who had faith. Our opening announcement sets the tone immediately: ‘Ladies and gentleman, the use of recording devices is a sin. For heaven’s sake, turn off your cellphones.’ And we get that first laugh.”
The four-time Tony-winner knows quite a bit about making shows appealing, especially this one. He saw it in London, where it was nominated for a 2010 Olivier Award for best musical.
Zaks immediately took to Patina Miller, the Pageland, S.C., native playing the night club singer who hides in a convent after witnessing a murder. He admired the disco-themed songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, who moved the setting back to the late 1970s. (The Whoopi Goldberg film that inspired this show is set in the ’90s.)
But the rest of it….
“I (first) saw the movie in London the night before I saw the show; and I found it funny and affecting,” says Zaks. “What I saw onstage in London was a far cry from that story. It was about irritating American stereotypes, seen from a British point of view.
“The folks who put the show together in London worked hard and long to get it onstage, and they should be given credit for getting it to the point where I could take it from there. But I didn’t think the songs, which were full of life and have fantastic lyrics, were employed skillfully.”
Zaks, a self-described “nice Jewish boy” who was born in Germany and raised in New Jersey, asked script doctor Douglas Carter Beane to re-do the book by Bill and Cherie Steinkellner. Beane sharpened dialogue and explained Catholic terms to the director.
“He referred to the narthex, which sounded like some kind of medicine,” says Zaks. “I asked what it was, he told me, and I told him never to use it again!” (It’s the church lobby at the end of the nave farthest from the main altar.)
They worked daily for five or six months before the first New York rehearsal, jettisoning a couple of songs and reshaping characters “so the audience could fall in love with them.” He and Beane added realistic touches as needed.
“We’re not supposed to dismiss Curtis (the killer who wants to silence the singer),” Zaks says. “In the original, he was a pimpish sort of guy, loud and abrasive and exaggerated. He should be a genuine threat, a charming guy who can be lethal at the same time, like Denzel Washington in ‘American Gangster.’ ”
Tony voters gave the New York version five nominations, including best musical, book and score. (Miller got one, too.) Yet Zaks’ tinkering didn’t stop, even when “Sister Act” undertook its U.S. tour.
“I did revisions with an eye toward better staging of scenes, things that had always bugged me that I had never done anything with,” he says.
Zaks had to be mindful of the size of venues on the road, which are often larger than theaters in New York. (Ovens has about 800 more seats than the Broadway Theatre, where “Sister Act” opened in Manhattan in April 2011.)
“I can’t use close-ups, like you would in a movie,” he says. “But you can make the largest house feel intimate, if the audience is all looking at the same place at the same time. The last row of the balcony won’t provide the same experience as a good orchestra seat, but nobody will be shortchanged.”