Central Hall Musical Society’s flagship February show is back at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre and this year they’re presenting the feel-good favourite Sister Act. The musical follows Deloris Van Cartier, a nightclub singer who goes into hiding at a convent under a police witness protection scheme. Though she initially struggles to fit in at the convent, Deloris manages to teach the nuns a lesson or two during her stay, and learns a few more in return. The plot is rather weak and often predictable, but thanks to legendary songwriter Alan Menken’s infectious score, it’s easy enough to look past the drama (or lack of) and lose yourself in some seriously funky disco vibes.
CHMS are well known for using their February production to really showcase what they can achieve in terms of creating impressive stage visuals; previous shows have featured flying witches, ocean liners and fully transforming VW Campervans. Rather disappointingly, the scenic design for Sister Act does not conjure the level of spectacle that audiences have come to expect of the company, instead leaving a lot to the imagination. This is a real shame given that the show offers little in the way of story, as the production could have filled in the cracks with a dazzling set to match the energetic ensemble numbers. It struck me as odd that the production team decided to spend money on a seldom-used (and downright unsightly) scaffolding structure when their finances could have been used elsewhere for more aesthetic embellishments, which certainly would have gone a long way in transforming the large space they had to play with.
The show starts off slow, but from the moment Ellie Pybus, starring as Deloris, struts her stuff and starts to sing “Take Me to Heaven,” you know that your ears are in for a treat. For the next two and a half hours, it really is the music that continues to do the divine work, with the acting rooted firmly in purgatory (destined for heaven no doubt, but could do with some refinement first). As the first act trudges along with a great lack of pace, it is a godsend indeed when the sisters finally make their entrance, 20 minutes into the proceedings. The ensemble of nuns breathe life into the show and really help to energise the stage from the second they enter. Stealing every scene she’s in, Evie Jones as Sister Mary Lazarus, gives the strongest comedy performance of the night. Other comic laurels must be given to Fergus Piper (Curtis Jackson), Jack Baldwin (TJ), Max Kelly (Joey) and Joseph Hayes (Pablo) for their hysterical performance of “When I Find My Baby,” one of the show’s highlights. The choreography is at its strongest during the moments when these boys are onstage; Demi Woolger (choreography) shows great skill in making dance routines both stylish and very funny simultaneously.
Technical problems throughout the evening meant that it was often difficult to hear what the actors onstage were saying, though hopefully this will become smoother as the performances continue over the weekend. Despite this, the show sounded truly sublime, especially during the bigger chorus numbers. Under the skilful musical direction of Josh Griffith, Menken’s score fills the Joseph Rowntree up to the rafters and at times almost blows the roof clean off – the orchestra are a pleasure to listen to from start to finish and must be commended for their quality of performance. Mark Ellis, playing Officer Eddie Souther, sings with great skill and is able to show off his impressive range during the Act One ballad “I Could Be That Guy”. The most impressive vocals on display are however saved for after the interval, when Anna Hale (Sister Mary Robert) stops the show with her incredibly powerful rendition of “The Life I Never Led”. Hale simply stuns with her performance – it’s worth buying a ticket for alone. The overall knockout moment of the show for me was the song “Raise Your Voice,” in which Deloris teaches the nuns to sing with big Broadway gusto. Ellie Pybus shines in Deloris’ more sassy moments and this song is the perfect showcase of her abilities as a performer. Pybus leads her fellow cast members through the six and a half minute anthem with ineffable enthusiasm, while the other actors each get to show off their comic chops alongside their talented voices. The stunning vocals and electric energy on display from the cast, combined with the pacey and faultless sound coming from the orchestra pit make this moment truly heavenly.
Sister Act may be lacking a little polish, but Rebecca Storey’s joyous production has certainly delivered feel-good fun by the bucketload. I have no doubt that over the next couple of days, each performance will somehow top the last, so you’d better pray that you can get a ticket to see it before it closes on Saturday night.