When people talk about the great Broadway composers of the last 50 years, they mention Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Kander, maybe Cy Coleman or Stephen Schwartz.
But Alan Menken? He’s just that guy who does Disney adaptations from his own movies (“Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast”) or shows that get mixed reviews and unspectacular runs (“Leap of Faith,” “Newsies”). Yet his scores stick in the ear, and “Sister Act” – now getting its locally produced premiere at CPCC Summer Theatre – is a good example.
Take “When I Find My Baby,” where Menken sets Glenn Slater’s witty lyrics to a 1970s Motown-style groove. The music sounds like a lament from a man looking for his long-lost girlfriend. It’s actually the vow of Curtis, a thug (Stephen Stamps) describing the fatal things he plans to do to his ex, who can finger him to the cops for a killing.
Such clever inversions of ideas run through this show, which Menken, Slater and book writers Bill and Cheryl Steinkellner adapted from the 1992 film. (Douglas Carter Beane touched up the book later.) Though the story has few surprises, catchy songs stay with you.
It’s constructed like a fairy tale, where faith, love and justice triumph in reassuring if improbable ways. So director Corey Mitchell juxtaposes real, grounded performances in the two leads with the unreal aspects of the plot: A singer (Jessica Rebecca) hides in a convent to escape Curtis, then turns its choir into a God-glorifying machine that packs pews and pulls the diocese out of debt.
Rebecca raises the rafters with her big personality and bigger voice, yet she has the ability to scale down for softer, tender moments; this role made a star of Pageland, S.C.’s, Patina Miller in London’s West End, and Rebecca’s one of the strongest singers I’ve seen locally in a long spell. The devout Mother Superior (Paula Baldwin) balances her with a quiet but equally fervent performance.
Choreographer Ron Chisholm exploits the disco goofiness of 1978; costumer Theresa Bush gets giddy with lamé and spangles; Gary Sivak’s glitzy lighting amplifies the mood. Drina Keen’s orchestra, which probably remembers this era, plays with gusto. (An uncredited musician blows a mean flute.)
Small roles have been cast from strength, too: Christian Deon Williams and Caroline Chisholm have extra charisma as a lovelorn cop and an ambivalent postulate, and I’d have paid half the admission to see Kathryn Stamas rap as Sister Mary Lazarus.