this big-budget musical revival feels adrift without planned star Whoopi Goldberg

Basically, this big-budget cover of the musical version of “Sister Act” is happening more or less because Whoopi Goldberg was going to star in it. Having previously starred as the disapproving Mother Superior in the show’s first West End run, the comic-turned-Hollywood star turned mega-hit chat show host had been persuaded to take part in a new production. However, as the program notes explain, she agreed on the condition that she could reprise the role she played in the original 1992 film: heroine Deloris van Cartier, the nightclub singer who hides in a convent after seeing her mafia boyfriend execute a snitch. .

It looks like rewrites were afoot to age the character, and it would have been fascinating to see exactly how that would have played out. But unfortunately, you can guess what happened next. The pandemic dented the original 2020 dates and its 2021 postponement, and Goldberg had to drop out, leaving a curious production: staging at the sprawling Hammersmith Apollo for a relatively short period to maximize a star’s time who no longer occurs in it.

To be fair, there’s hardly a shortage of names: Jennifer Saunders remains on board from the initial cast as Mother Superior, while Clive Rowe (Eddie Souther), Lesley Joseph (Sister Mary Lazarus) and Keala Settle (Sister Mary Patrick) are all decently big names. And Beverly Knight makes a very respectable replacement for Goldberg: retaining her Arkansas accent from her recent appearance in ‘The Drifters Girl’, the queen of UK Soul™ is a musical theater veteran these days. While she’s clearly not as funny as Goldberg would have been, she wows just about everyone vocally: she’s an extraordinary singer.

Perhaps Knight fits Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s musical a little too comfortably. Goldberg was the USP of this revival: not just a huge star and tremendous comedic presence, but a genuine connection to the original film. Now it feels a bit directionless: Capably revived with a great vocalist who can nail the songs, but with no real reinvention or obvious imperative to bring it back.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid Bill Buckhurst production with some fun set pieces: in particular, Rowe’s quick double change in the song “I Could Be That Guy” is truly stunning, while the sinister curtain call costumes cause migraines. delight (great job by costume designer Morgan Large). And Mencken and Slater’s rambunctious and often genuinely funny songs have definite custodians in their ranks: the musical is set in ’70s Philadelphia (as opposed to the ’90s movie set in San Francisco), and the winks moving to the styles of the time suit Knight. down to the ground.

But the musical is not an icy classic. It’s a pretty solid comedic game in the first half, as Deloris reluctantly joins the nuns, finding redemption for herself and them as she reforms their hitherto hopeless choir. But the second half is bloated and heavy, too many characters to watch longing for self-pity, too little comedy.

Saunders also feels misplaced: Her distracted, doddery schtick is fine but she’s no great foil to Knight’s Deloris: You never get the sense that her Mother Superior disapproves of the newcomer any more than she disapproves of the whole rest. TV stalwart Lesley Joseph is fun as grumpy but witty Mary Lazarus, and “Greatest Showman” star Settle is a hoot as pathologically cheerful Mary Patrick. Rowe is fine as nice cop Eddie – you wouldn’t say he had much chemistry with Knight, but he has almost as much vocal firepower as her, and it’s worth it for that lightning change.

I don’t really have much more to add: ‘Sister Act’ is a decent musical, revived with a decent cast and reasonable charm. This is good. But the whole point of this production was to bring Whoopi Goldberg here and she’s not here. I don’t think the producers should be blamed for persisting, and maybe they didn’t have much choice. But while there’s a lot to like here, it’s basically event theater without the actual event.