Theater: Born Yesterday Surprises, Sister Act Begs Your Indulgence

BORN YESTERDAY *** out of ****

Two new shows just opened on Broadway. Both seemed shaky ideas: a revival of a creaky comedy and a musical based on a so-so (but successful) movie. One of them is a happy surprise and the other is just sinfully shameless enough to get by on a wing and a prayer.

Nina Ariadna is the star of Born Yesterday and the reason this show has been revived: the moment she sprang into the spotlight, someone realized she was perfect for Billie Dawn, the role made famous by Judy Holliday. But she should thank director Doug Hughes for a well-directed show that keeps everyone on the same page. The Garson Kanin comedy isn't played for laughs and that makes them all the sweeter.

Because Holliday made so many tepid vehicles after her breakthrough, it's easy to forget this particular show isn't as dated as you might imagine. For one thing, influence peddling never goes out of style in Washington, D.C. So the story of a junk salesman/two-bit gangster (Jim Belushi) in town to buy a senator or two is all too timely. One problem? His ditzy girlfriend Billie squeaks and squawks and always says the wrong thing. In comes journalist Robert Sean Leonard to play Professor Higgins and give the girl a taste of good manners. Unfortunately, he also gives her a mind of her own and falls in love in the process.

It's predictable, sure. And Leonard tells Billie she's an angel about two seconds after they meet, which is about two scenes too early. But it works. Leonard is smoothly believable as the newspaperman who delights in Billie's quick awakening both to the pleasures of knowledge and her own self-worth. Here's hoping this season of House is his last so he can stay on Broadway for good.

Jim Belushi has the trickiest part: his gangster offers countless opportunities for cartoonish acting. Yet every time you think he'll go too far Belushi reins it back in. Most of the supporting turns -- from the hands-out senator of Terry Beaver to the henchman of Michael McGrath -- keep things on a believable level. No playing to the balcony for them.

But of course it's Ariadna who is the center of attention, and she delivers a funny, focused, very distinctive Billie. More tough broad than ditzy blonde, Ariadna is sexy and funny, but you really feel the hurt when Belushi keeps mocking her.

If anyone lets down the side, it's the fine actor Frank Wood. He actually has a quite interesting part: a former assistant Attorney General and author of a book even Billie admires about freedom, Wood is now carrying water for a two-bit hood like Belushi. Not that you'd find any of that complexity in his serviceable but no more than adequate turn. Since Wood has the final awkward toast -- which falls flat given how little an impression his character has made -- it's the one off note in a revival that makes the most of a fairly standard boulevard comedy.

If you're tickled silly by the idea of singing and dancing nuns -- and the audience I saw this new musical with certainly was -- then you'll have an undemanding good time at this show. If you were hoping they took an obvious but not awful idea -- turning the Whoopi Goldberg comedy about a savvy woman hiding out in a convent who gives the choir a little soul -- and made themselves a genuinely good musical, I'm afraid your prayers are not answered.

You do get singing and dancing nuns (at the end of Act One) and some more singing and dancing nuns (and sparkly habits) in Act Two, not to mention a giant statue of Mary done up like a disco ball and a surprise appearance by the Pope. But a well-developed story, great songs and top-notch choreography is apparently reserved for the Mormons (or so I've been told).

You know the drill: a would-be disco diva witnesses a murder and must hide out in a convent. This show is set in Philadelphia in 1977/1978 so it has a vague Philly soul sound. Patina Miller was a hit in London and looks smashing at the curtain call. But during the actual show, she is fine but never quite wows with a voice that never convinces on those heavenly high notes and a performance that seems more class than sass. She faces off with Mother Superior, played by the marvelous Victoria Clark, who nails her comic lines but never gets a chance to shine in her songs.

In fact, the singing is notably weak throughout Sister Act. Marla Mindelle plays the postulant who is supposed to wow us with her voice, but she too sounds pinched in the upper register, so you can never relax during her big solo number "The Life I Never Led." And NONE of the men sing well -- not the boyfriend/cop, not the gangster, not the comic relief. They're all adequate at best and that's just not good enough. Neither is the choreography by Anthony Van Laast, fairly non-existent except for the all-nun sing-alongs that end each act; the set by Klara Zieglerova, which is unnecessarily busy and dark (sure the convent is run down, but wouldn't our heroine light it up?); nor the direction by the great Jerry Zaks, which lets us down especially during a tepid chase scene meant to be the comic climax.

A few numbers (music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater) hint at what might have been. "It's Good To Be A Nun" is a mildly amusing spin on Rodgers & Hammerstein that extolls the cloistered life. "Bless Our Show" actually drives the story forward (like a good musical number should) and illuminates the central idea of a savvy woman of the world and women of faith actually teaching each other something. And "The Life I Never Led" at least is about something.

The modest pleasure of the movie came from Goldberg's comic aplomb and her sparring with Maggie Smith's Mother Superior. Virtually none of that appears here, which is a shame since Clark is well up to the task. Instead, even after the pews are filled with parishioners, money is flowing in, the Church is saved and the Pope is coming to visit she's still complaining to God about this interloper. Really? Throw in a lazy, anachronistic joke about the Smurfs and that disco Mary statue and you've got a show that gives fans of Nunsense some silly costumes to gape at while tapping their toes. But it could have been more.

THE 2010-2011 THEATER SEASON (ratings on a four star system)

Angels in America revival at Signature *** out of ****
Anything Goes ** 1/2
Arcadia with Billy Crudup *** 1/2
Being Harold Pinter ** 1/2
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo **
Between Worlds/Entre Mundos * 1/2
Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse **
Blood From A Stone ** 1/2
Born Yesterday ***
The Broadway Musicals Of 1921 at Town Hall ***
Cactus Flower *
Catch Me If You Can *** 1/2
Devil Boys From Beyond **
The Diary Of A Madman with Geoffrey Rush at BAM ***
The Divine Sister *** 1/2
Double Falsehood **
The Dream Of The Burning Boy ** 1/2
Driving Miss Daisy **
Elf *
Elling **
A Free Man Of Color ** 1/2
Gatz ***
Ghetto Klown ***
Good People with Frances McDormand **
The Grand Manner **
The Great Game ***
Gruesome Playground Injuries ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Nursing **
The Hallway Trilogy: Paraffin ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Rose ***
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying ***
The Importance Of Being Earnest ** 1/2
The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church *** 1/2
Jerusalem ***
John Gabriel Borkman * 1/2
La Bete ** 1/2
Les Miserables ***
Lombardi **
Macbeth with John Douglas Thompson **
The Merchant Of Venice *** 1/2
Middletown ***
Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend ***
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore *
Mistakes Were Made ** 1/2
The Motherf**ker With The Hat ***
Nixon In China *** 1/2
The New York Idea **
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables at BAM ***
Other Desert Cities **
Our Town with Helen Hunt ***
The Pee-wee Herman Show ***
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical * 1/2
The Road To Qatar *
Room ***
The Scottsboro Boys ****
Sister Act **
Sleep No More *** 1/2
Small Craft Warnings zero stars
Three Sisters (w Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) *** 1/2
Timon Of Athens at Public with Richard Thomas ***
War Horse ***
We're Gonna Die ***
The Whipping Man **
Wings **
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown **
Wonderland *

Blood Ties ***
Fellowship * 1/2
Fingers and Toes ** 1/2
Frog Kiss *** 1/2
The Great Unknown ** 1/2
Nighttime Traffic **
Our Country *
PopArt *
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical ** 1/2
Show Choir **
Tess: The New Musical **
Trav'lin' ***
Without You *** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz was provided with tickets to this show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.