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Stage Door: Sister Act, Born Yesterday

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WHOOPI GOLDBERG

Nuns decked out in glittering habits, raising the roof, disco-wise, may be a novelty, but the latest movie-turned-musical, Sister Act at the Broadway Theater, is tame stuff. It's based on the 1992 comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, who is also producing the Broadway show. While the production was successful in London, it lacks oomph. All that glitters is not gold.

Sister Act opens in Philadelphia, 1978. Deloris van Cartier (a talented Patina Miller) is auditioning for her smarmy boyfriend (Kingsley Leggs), amid his trio of lackeys. When she inadvertently sees him murder an informant, police detective Sweaty Eddie (Chester Gregory) hides her in a South Philly convent until the trial.

Now, the idea of a sassy singer confined within the walls of a nunnery has great comic possibilities, as the movie demonstrated. And the requisite moments when everyone questions their faith adds a dollop of poignancy. But as a musical, even as it enlarges the roles for the men -- who belt out a series of humorous Alan Menken/Glenn Slater songs -- it's limited.
Deloris is a big personality -- and her voice cannot be quelled. As she transforms a gloomy choir of nuns into a joyous disco/Motown sound, the religion of true friendship blossoms.

That's thanks to some terrific performances by Sarah Bolt, Marla Mindelle and Audrie Neenan. As Mother Superior, Victoria Clark hits the right note of frustration, rather than comic crispness. That's not to suggest the show is without laughs -- the collection plate is sizable; when the nuns burst into "Take Me To Heaven," they mean it. Sister Act captures the garishness of the Seventies in costume and lighting, and offers several rousing numbers, but it's short on revelation.

Conversely, the revival of Born Yesterday, a polemic comedy about post-war corruption in Washington, still packs punch - though its fervor may seem quixotic today. Set in 1946, a bombastic, greedy businessman is juxtaposed with a crusading journalist, who condemns his efforts to enrich himself at the expense of the people.

Now at the Cort Theater, what keeps the production fresh is the enduring character of Billie Dawn, rich Harry's girlfriend, a ditzy blonde who discovers, thanks to an education in civics, that ideals matter. Nina Arianda embraces the famed Judy Holliday role with relish. Arianda, who astounded in last year's Venus in Fur, is a versatile actress and compelling stage presence. Her Billie is a leggy blonde with a broad New York accent and infectious laugh. What she lacks in brains she makes up for in heart. Billie falls for Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard), the writer Harry pays to smarten her up.

The ironies abound: Billie is learning about democracy, as Harry subverts it. When the crude, bullying Harry (played to bearish perfection by Jim Belushi) barks out orders to his lackey lawyer (Frank Wood) and obsequious senator (Terry Beaver), it strikes current audiences as status quo. Harry's belligerent claims of "free enterprise," meaning legislation that favors the rich over everyone else, sound suspiciously like the Wall Street CEOs behind the subprime debacle -- or the GOP.

In the ensuing years, we have become accustomed to lobbyists owning politicians; in the case of the Bush Administration, inviting corporations to determine energy policy. Garson Kanin's script is idealistic if you view democracy as naïve. Accept the premise that government should work for the many -- rather than manipulated by the few -- and its indictments are as vital as they were decades ago.

Belushi and Arianda are heavyweights -- and they ring various emotions out of their roles. Their scenes crackle; however, as the intellectual-turned-love interest, Leonard is a bit restrained, lacking that spark of chemistry that makes Billie fall for him. Still, the dialogue is clever -- and Arianda's performance alone is worth the price of admission.