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Wholly entertaining

"Sister Act" • Produced by Whoopi Goldberg, Directed by Jerry Zaks • Music: Alan Menken, Lyrics: Glenn Slater • Broadway Theater, NYC • Open-ended run

Whoopi Goldberg is a force of nature.

It's been more than 20 years since director Mike Nichols produced a one-woman show for this little-known performer from the West Coast. In 1992, the actress got her best film opportunity, "Sister Act," in which she played a Reno lounge singer marked for murder when she observes her mobster boyfriend killing another hood. The great Maggie Smith played the Mother Superior of the convent in which the heroine, Deloris Van Cartier, hides out, posing as a nun who takes command of the choir.

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The next year, 1993, there was a mild sequel, "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit," carrying the story forward effectively although rather unconvincingly. Along the way, the original film was turned into a successful London stage musical, with Goldberg playing the angry Mother Superior for a while.

It was virtuallty unavoidable that "Sister Act" would turn up on Broadway, produced but not performed by Goldberg, who coached the dazzling Patina Miller, whose career had begun with "Hair" at the Public Theater. Eventually, Miller played Deloris on the stage in London, achieving considerable acclaim for her work.

In the New York production, the Mother Superior, who isn't given a name of her own, is played by Victoria Clark, best known for her performance, a few seasons back, as the mother in "The Light in the Piazza" at Lincoln Center Theatre. Clark's role in "Sister Act" suffers from being poorly motivated, existing primarily to give "Sister" Deloris a disapproving enemy to eventually turn into a friend.

"Sister Act" is so loosely plotted that it comes as a surprise that no fewer than five writers are credited with having put it together, Alan Menken wrote the thin score, Glenn Slater provided the lyrics, while Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner did the book, with, as the Playbill not-so-subtly puts it, "additional book material" by playwright Douglas Carter Beane.

Director Jerry Zaks is nothing if not an experienced comic actor, and he deserves abundan credit for the fact that audiences at "Sister Act" laugh almost continuously from start to finish. If a gag or even a plotline fails to pay off quickly, it's gone in an instant, never to return. To cite just one example, a weak story thread about two wealthy young gay men attempting to buy the impoverished church is briefly mentioned and then disappears without a trace.

The primary fun to be had at "Sister Act" is in watching Deloris Van Cartier convert a haphazard chorus of nuns into a kind of trendy lounge act fully worthy of Reno or even Las Vegas, with spangled habits and tricky moves to accompany almost every line they sing.

Choreographer Anthony Van Laast has provided some good, solid moves for almost the entire company, with particular emphasis on a slick routine for a quartet of thugs headed by Deloris' lethal boyfriend, Curtis Jackson, nicely done by Kingsley Leggs. Van Laast has also done well with Chester Gregory, as Eddie Souther, a ghost from Deloris' past who turns up in time to offer her a bright, gangster-free future.

"Sister Act" is a welcome reminder of just how much fun even a casually energetic old-fashioned musical comedy can be if it turns up in the right hands.