Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2004
Twenty one years ago Dan Goggin opened Nunsense at a New York cabaret called the Duplex. The show was based, believe it or not, on a successful line of greeting cards Goggin had developed, and what was supposed to be a four weekend run lasted 38 weeks and led in 1985 to a nine-year off-Broadway run which garnered four Outer Critics Awards including Best Off-Broadway Musical. In the intervening decades Goggin has added Nunsense II – The Second Coming; Nunsense III – Sister Amnesia’s Jamboree; “Nuncrackers – the Nunsense Christmas Musical; Meshuggah-Nuns! The Ecumenical Nunsense and A-Men, an all-male version of the original show, to the roster.
Dan Goggin has gotten awfully rich off of silly nuns.
One reason for the show’s success is that it has an all-female cast and none of the players are required to be model thin or “beautiful” in the traditional sense. Bluntly put, this is the ultimate showcase for middle-aged broads with a good set of pipes. Falling in to that category myself, I can easily see the allure. Add the ubiquitousness of the Roman Catholic church (yes, I know that Catholic means universal), community theatres around the world have had a blast staging Goggin’s shows. They are equally popular with audiences.
But I wonder if the fun of watching “nuns” bump, grind, and swear hasn’t worn a little thin. While this production of Nunsense at the Ghent Playhouse is energetic and entertaining, there were moments when I just wanted to get through the dumb goofy stuff and on with the plot. With all the sad trauma that has arisen in the American Catholic community in recent years, the public is fully aware of the human frailty of those in Holy Orders. These days everyone seems to be bumping, grinding, and swearing. I might laugh harder at nuns who focused more on being above the world than of it. Some of the more delightful moments of the show occur when the women sing of their call and the joy they find in their chosen life.
In case you have managed to avoid Nunsense all these years, the premise is simple. The Little Sisters of Hoboken are staging a variety show to raise money to bury four members of their order. It seems that their chef, Sister Julia, Child of God, killed everyone who wasn’t off playing Bingo with the Mary Knolls with a pot of vichyssoise soup avec botulism. Instructed by a holy vision, Reverend Mother starts a greeting card line which raises enough money to bury all but four of the late Sisters. But, thinking there is more money available than there actually is, Reverend Mother buys a plasma TV for the convent and they are stuck with four nuns on ice in the convent freezer. Once the New Jersey Board of Health gets a whiff of this the Little Sisters are in big trouble and they desperately stage a show in the Mount Saint Helen’s auditorium to raise the necessary cash. You are the audience watching that show.
The Ghent Playhouse has assembled a cast of five talented ladies and director Michael C. Mensching gets them to play full out. Every one of those women is “on” every single second – belting out their numbers, dancing up and storm, and telling some of the oldest jokes in the book. They sound great individually and collectively, and they look like they are having a blast. There is a lot of audience participation (WARNING: Don’t wear a mini-skirt) and so these ladies need to also be adept at improvising.
The surviving Little Sisters include Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Michele Marano), Sister Mary Hubert (Joan Faxon), mistress of the novices, Sister Robert Anne (Wanda Libardi), Sister Mary Amnesia (Joy Covert), who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head, and a young novice, Sister Mary Leo (Marissa Carlson).
The Reverend Mother is considered a star turn, and I was a little disappointed in Marano. She can sing up a storm, but she is not the greatest comedienne in the world. There were moments when she made me laugh and moments when she made me cringe slightly. Actually, all of the performers are better singers than they are actresses/comediennes which means that many numbers have “big” finishes that are only big vocally. The choreography, by Steven Bolte with additional numbers staged by Mensching and Michael Faxon, was repetitious and predictable, which didn’t help.
Joan Faxon is more nun-like as Hubert, and also sings very nicely. Libardi, as the tough Brooklyn-born Robert Anne, is fun and funny in her solos bits. I loved her green Converse high tops, especially when paired with the black sequined evening dress she revealed in her big number I Just Want to be a Star.
Carlson is a sassy young woman of considerable talent. She is the weakest vocally but the strongest comedienne. I am still not sure I buy her as a “nun ballerina” but it was a funny bit of casting even if it didn’t pan out.
Covert steals the show as the vacuous and silly Mary Amnesia. Flashing an impressive array of teeth and wide vacant eyes, Covert whines her way through her lines, only to open up her mouth and reveal a versatile trained singing voice. She sings in character, in an operatic mode, as the boisterous “Sister Mary Annette”, and, finally, as a deep voiced country western queen a la Tammy Wynette. There were times when she drove me absolutely nuts, but then she would turn around and reveal another talent that had me worshipping at her feet again. She must be having the time of her life.
The costumes are by designer extraordinaire Joanne Maurer, and consist primarily of habits and wimples with some funny touches. The lighting by Ian Gulliver seemed a little haphazard, but I may have been distracted by the many times the houselights were raised to allow for audience interaction.
It is traditional for Nunsense to be performed on the set of another show – theoretically the one about to be produced by the students of Mount Saint Helen’s School. I have seen it performed, theoretically, on the set of Grease and on the set of The Mikado but I believe that both of those sets were constructed especially for the productions of Nunsense and not for actual productions of the aforementioned shows. They both made an attempt to look like sets painted by high school students. The last show they did at Ghent was H.M.S. Pinafore and they simply left Tom Detwiler’s set in tact. For that show, it was attractive and versatile. Now it looks like a bunch of ladies performing Nunsense on the wrong set. Mensching does nothing to take advantage of the situation (perhaps a few G&S references for those of us nutty enough to laugh at them?) nor does he take advantage of the fun holes in the set which people popped in and out of to great effect in Pinafore
So this production isn’t perfect, but it certainly is funny and this is community theatre, after all. When you go to a Nunsense show you know you aren’t seeing Shakespeare or even Rodgers and Hammerstein. Its gonna be silly, and that is the one aspect Mensching and his cast nail down perfectly.
A few years ago I went to review a production of Victor, Victoria at the Mac-Haydn. Unable to get a “date,” I turned in my second press ticket at the box office in the hopes that they could sell it to a deserving soul. Imagine my surprise when the person who occupied the seat next to me turned out to be a nun in full habit! A musical about cross dressing seemed an odd choice for a nun, and, curious, I struck up a conversation. It turned out she was in a convent way down in Tarrytown, New York, and traveled to Columbia County for the high quality theatre at affordable prices. “They give us $250 a year for entertainment,” she explained, “And I spend all of mine on shows!” Something tells me that, given half a chance, she would have been up on stage, bumping and grinding with the best of them. Nunsense lives!
Nunsense runs May 21st through June 6th, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two hours and ten minutes and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004