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New ‘Sister Act’ moves to disco

Hollis Resnik stars as Mother Superior and Ta’Rea Campbell stars as Deloris, a budding disco star, in the stage musical “Sister Act.”

Joan Marcus

Hollis Resnik stars as Mother Superior and Ta’Rea Campbell stars as Deloris, a budding disco star, in the stage musical “Sister Act.”

Fans of the 1992 “Sister Act” movie starring Whoopi Goldberg will find that the touring musical coming to the Opera House this week moves to a different beat. Out with the Motown pastiche, in with the disco.

Rock and soul have fluid, syncopated rhythms, says the stage adaptation’s composer, Alan Menken. With disco, though, “all of a sudden it was just: Boom. Boom. Boom. On the beat,” he says. “I found the ’70s music in general to be something that just tickled me. It was so dance-oriented. It was the underscore for a whole other kind of culture.”

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A culture, he explains by phone from his office just north of New York City, that becomes more entertaining with time.

“You have to wait about 30 years, and then the style suggests so many things that we look back at fondly but also laugh at,” Menken says. “You think about disco, and you think about bell-bottoms, and those haircuts! The mullets!”

In the movie “Sister Act,” whose original music is by Marc Shaiman (“Hairspray”), Goldberg stars as Deloris van Cartier, a Reno lounge singer who witnesses a murder and gets taken into witness protection in the one place no one would ever look for her: a convent.

The musical takes basically the same path, although the action has moved to Philadelphia and Deloris is a budding disco star. The role will be played here by Ta’Rea Campbell, whose Broadway credits include “Leap of Faith” and “The Book of Mormon.”

“Deloris van Cartier is a fiery diva,” says Campbell, from a tour stop in North Carolina. “She wants to be famous, and she wants to be fabulous, and she wants to be a star. And in her mind she already is, so it’s kind of a shock to her that she’s not headlining clubs.”

Composer Alan Menken (below), discussing the show’s score, said ’70s music was “something that just tickled me. It was so dance-oriented.”

Andy Kropa/Getty Images

Composer Alan Menken (below), discussing the show’s score, said ’70s music was “something that just tickled me. It was so dance-oriented.”

Deloris is also already dissatisfied with her boyfriend, shady nightclub owner Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), when she witnesses his involvement in a murder. She turns to the police, and then it’s off to the convent until it’s time to testify. But if Mother Superior (Hollis Resnick) thinks being “Here Within These Walls” is going to change Deloris, it’s mostly the other way around. Naturally, Deloris helps the nuns find their groove, despite the gangsters on her trail.

“I think that Deloris is really, really honest, and she says exactly what she feels when she feels it,” Campbell says. “It’s a really strong quality that she has, but it also gets her in a lot of trouble sometimes. That’s where the battle comes; that’s where the funny struggle happens between her and Mother Superior.”

After early productions in Pasadena, Calif., where the musical premiered in 2006, and Atlanta, “Sister Act” ran for more than a year in London’s West End, finally arriving at its intended destination on Broadway under the direction of Jerry Zaks in 2011.

That production’s Deloris was Patina Miller, now performing as the Leading Player in “Pippin” at the American Repertory Theater before moving with the revival to Broadway. Miller received one of the show’s five Tony Award nominations, as did the team of Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater.

Goldberg is a producer of the “Sister Act” musical, and also spent a few weeks performing in the show in London — but this time she played Mother Superior, the Maggie Smith role in the movie.

Menken says the show coming to Boston is very much the Broadway production. The musical director, Brent-Alan Huffman, conducted the show on Broadway, and several cast members are carryovers as well.

Menken is best known for his work on Disney animated hits including “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Little Mermaid,” earning a shelf of Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globes along the way, and adapting many for the stage.

“Truth be told, ‘Sister Act’ is the first musical I’ve written directly for the Broadway stage,” he says. “Everything else was an adaptation of something I wrote for film or wrote for off-Broadway, or, in one case, an oratorio I did. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is Broadway, I guess, but that played Madison Square Garden, so it’s a little different.”

He was approached to work on the show by Peter Schneider, a former Disney executive who had worked with him decades earlier on “Little Shop of Horrors” off-Broadway. “At first I was resistant to it, because it’s already got songs that are so well known,” but the challenge of writing a new score and giving the characters a new voice was irresistible, Menken says.

“I like to think, when you get to a certain musical number in a musical, if you turn off the words and just hear the music, the music itself should give you about 50 percent of what you’re going to get dramatically,” he says.

With Slater, he also came up with a few twists on that formula, notably in “When I Find My Baby.”

“For me there always should be a moment for the audience of ‘Oh, I get it!’ ” Menken says with a laugh. “Curtis is singing a song that’s a kind of hearts-and-flowers kinda love song, but it’s about ‘how I wanna dismember the girl because she’s turned against me.’ ”

In fact, Menken says, pure disco is a relatively small part of the show’s score. As a working pianist and beginning composer in New York in the ’70s, he had to get to know the new sounds, but he wasn’t going out to discos except for the occasional professional obligation, much less hanging at Studio 54. Unsurprisingly, then, his “Sister Act” compositions run the musical gamut of that decade. “It’s got all those ’70s styles,” he says, “from disco to funk to psychedelic soul to the smooth jazz, where I think of Lou Rawls, and there’s traditional musical theater as well.”

The newest Deloris seems to welcome the variety.

“It’s such fun to sing, I’m having a blast,” says Campbell. “It’s really easy to just fall right into that groove.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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