Norwich gets into musical habit with Sister Act

Musical fans rejoice — hit show Sister Act arrives in Norwich next week, with a cast including Brookside star Michael Starke. EMMA LEE meets him.

Recent years have seen a Hollywood invasion of the West End, with many of the major hits – Legally Blonde, Shrek and Dirty Dancing to name a few – starting life on the silver screen.

And one of the biggest successes has been Sister Act, an adaptation of the hit 1992 movie, which starred Whoopi Goldberg as nun-on-the-run Deloris Van Cartier.

When Deloris witnesses a murder she ends up in protective custody in a convent. While she doesn't make the best impression with the strict Mother Superior, she transforms the convent's off-key choir into a hit musical act.

The feelgood show, co-produced by Goldberg, was seen by more than a million people during its run at the London Palladium.

Now on tour, Sister Act arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal for a two-week run on April 17, with a cast including Brookside star Michael Starke.

Michael was last in the city last year playing Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, another show which has ricocheted between screen and stage. This time there's not a psychedelic-patterned housecoat in sight though.

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'I play Monsignor O'Hara. He's the head of the convent, or likes to think he is,' says Michael. 'He's one of those guys who's very stern in his job and knows exactly what he has to do. But the character has a nice journey – he has a fun side. And he's very different to anyone I have played before.'

Michael stars alongside Denise Black, as Mother Superior, who has starred in Coronation Street, Bad Girls, Robin Hood, New Tricks and Queer as Folk.

They're joined by a host of top touring and West End favourites, including Laurie Scarth, who co-starred with Michael in Hairspray as leading lady Tracy Turnblad, and Julie Atherton, who has starred in Mamma Mia! and was in the original London cast of Avenue Q.

'And Cynthia Erivo, who is playing Deloris, is phenomenal. I'm astounded all the time by how good everyone is.

'The cast are a lovely energetic bunch. We're having a lot of fun.'

Michael says that while the stage version of Sister Act has the plot in common with the movie, it's a great show in its own right.

'I knew the film, I'm a fan of Whoopi Goldberg, and I saw it many years ago,' he says. 'The music in the stage version is original, by [Oscar-winning Disney composer] Alan Menken, so that gives the show its own identity. The music is the star of the show. Sticking my neck out, I think that the show is better than the film,' he says.

Working in musical theatre is a dream come true for Michael, who was reared on a diet of classic Rodgers and Hammerstein.

'I always liked to sing and I always wanted to do musicals. My mum was a bit of a film buff. We would watch the Saturday film at 3pm on BBC2 when I was a kid – musicals like Carousel and Oklahoma!'

But auditioning for a part in a production of West Side Story as a youngster was a reality check.

'Me and my mate went along – we were two James Dean types. There were so many good kids who could dance and sing. I was totally out of my depth, but it gave me a taste for it and I really wanted to do it.'

He joined a comedy group, doing impressions, to get his Equity card.

'I did that for a couple of years and then joined a company called Liverpool Lunchtime Theatre which performed works by new writers,' he explains.

He was approached by the writer Jimmy McGovern who was working on the soap Brookside at the time and was offered a part for a couple of episodes playing a loveable rogue called Sinbad.

'And 15 years later...,' he says laughing.

Michael has also appeared in Coronation Street and The Royal and his varied stage career includes tours of Cole Porter's Anything Goes and The Rocky Horror Show, and She Stoops to Conquer and Hamlet at the Liverpool Everyman.

And, for Michael, nothing beats the buzz of live theatre.

'Sister Act is such a great show to be involved with because it gets so well received. We haven't had a bad night – people are up dancing in the aisles and we're getting standing ovations,' he says.

'There's nothing better than seeing a theatre full of people on their feet clapping and cheering.'

t Sister Act, Norwich Theatre Royal, April 17-28, �35-�6.50, 01603 630000,


The arrival of Sister Act has inspired a divine challenge for people to take part in a world record-breaking attempt at Norwich Theatre Royal.

The theatre hopes to smash the Guinness World Record for the largest number of people dressed as nuns in one place and is calling for as many people as possible to don a nun's habit and join members of the cast and Theatre Royal staff for the challenge.

The attempt will take place in the theatre's auditorium at 6pm on April 18, and the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James and Radio Norfolk presenter Stephen Bumfrey will act as Guinness World Record adjudicators on the day.

Theatre spokesman John Bultitude said: 'We haven't had Sister Act at the Theatre Royal before so we wanted to do something quirky to celebrate the show coming to Norwich, and I don't think there has ever been a Guinness World Record broken at the theatre either, so we though why not combine the two and go for this divine challenge. If you want to be a record-breaker then this is your chance.'

The record stands at 250, and the theatre hopes up to 1,000 people will take part in the record breaking attempt.

People can just turn up on the day and do not have to have a ticket for Sister Act to take part, but they must be wearing a habit, white coif and black veil, dark trousers and dark shoes to qualify. And you'll need to source your own nun outfit!


t The comedy film Sister Act was released in 1992. Directed by Emile Ardolino and featuring musical arrangements by Marc Shaiman.

t It starred Whoopi Goldberg as a Reno lounge singer who has been put under protective custody in a San Francisco convent and has to pretend to be a nun when a mob boss puts her on his hit list.

t A surprise hit, the film was followed by a 1993 sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.

t The film's soundtrack, containing the musical numbers performed by the actors ass well as a string of soul classics, stayed on the US charts for 54 weeks.

t It was no surprise then when the film became the latest movie to inspire a stage musical with Whoopi Goldberg as co-producer.

t Sister Act — The Musical premiered in California in 2006, and opened in the West End at the London Palladium in 2009 before transferring to Broadway in April 2011.

t The musical varies significantly from the movie with a new book by the writers of Cheers and brand-new music by award-winning composer Alan Menken.

t In the heroine is an averagely-talented Vegas singer over 30 who has a gangster boyfriend who won't leave his wife. On stage, she is pouting, gifted young thing in her 20s singing in a club under the controlling gaze of her smooth-talking boyfriend.

t The original West End production saw 24-year-old actress Patina Miller cast as Deloris, following a year-long search, alongside Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior and Ian Lavender as Monsignor Howard.

t Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast as the Mother Superior for a limited engagement but she was forced to leave the cast due to her mother suffering a stroke. However, she returned for five performances just before the show closed.

t The musical was nominated for four Oliver Awards in the UK and five Tony awards for the Broadway production, but failed to take home the gongs in any category.

t The Sister Act Nuns Run was first held in 2009 when the West End production got together with Barnardos after deciding a Nun Run would be a great fundraiser.

t So successful, the run has become an annual event. The 2011 run took place in September to coincide with the UK tour that brings the show to Norwich.