BWW Reviews: Desert Theatreworks' NUNSENSE: THE MEGA-MUSICAL is Silly, Irreverent, and Lots of Fun
Desert Theatreworks (DTW), one of the Coachella Valley's nonprofit theatre companies, leaves 'em laughing with its current musical comedy, NUNSENSE: THE MEGA-MUSICAL, directed by Lance Phillips-Martinez.
Shakespeare it isn't - NUNSENSE is more like a Mel Brooks creation, at least if he were inviting audience participation and skewering Catholicism instead of his usual targets. Dan Goggin's musical farce contains clever wordplay and a bunch of sheep puns - the term I use for groaners, because they're b-a-a-a-d. The show is silly and irreverent - in spots even offensive, depending on one's tolerance for Catholicism jokes and gross-out humor (such as body parts falling off in a leper colony or dead nuns preserved in a freezer). Yet, NUNSENSE is highly enjoyable.
The "mega-musical" version of NUNSENSE features a larger cast than the original (including one male member, Hal O'Connell as a priest, who really looks like he could be a priest in his everyday life), and contains additional dialogue and music, but the convoluted story is the same. The Little Sisters of Hoboken, New Jersey, must raise money, fast, to bury four dead nuns. While several of the nuns were off playing bingo with a group of Maryknoll sisters, the convent's cook, Sister Julia, Child of God (Rebecca Hertsgaard), tried out her new vichyssoise recipe on the nuns who stayed behind. Alas, the tainted soup killed the lot, except for Sister Julia, who did not taste her own recipe. The Mother Superior, Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Louise Tonti), miscalculated the cost of burying the departed sisters, and purchased a large-screen television with what she thought was leftover money. As a result, the last four are reposing in the convent's freezer, while the order tries to raise the burial money through a musical revue. Will the Little Sisters manage to collect what they need to speed the four frozen nuns on their way to heaven before the health department inspects the kitchen and discovers the freezer's contents, or will another catastrophe befall the bedeviled order?
The performers clearly have a great time playing their parts, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Early in the show, Sister Mary Amnesia (Karen Schmitt), so named because she can't remember her real identity, comes out into the audience to test everyone on what the previous song taught them. She awards prizes for right answers, including a magnetic saint so the winner can "stick it anywhere." The volunteers are actual audience members who have not been selected or prepped in advance, resulting in hilarious, spontaneous exchanges.
The chorus sings beautifully, sounding like a real women's religious choir, and the dance numbers are impressive - especially the tap dance in the "Tackle that Temptation" number that ends Act One. Sister Amnesia's "duet" with Sister Mary Annette, a foul-mouthed Sesame Street clone puppet, and a Margaret Hamilton wicked witch scene featuring the street-wise Sister Robert Anne (Jocelyn Lacy) are a great deal of fun. The Reverend Mother's scene with a multicolored umbrella and Sister Mary Leo's (Alexis Safoyan) scarf dance are clever and entertaining. Sister Mary Hubert's (Denise A. Carter) rollicking gospel song, "Holier than Thou," made me want to get up and dance. The ensemble song, "We've Got to Clean Out the Freezer," is also memorable.
Even though this is an ensemble cast, three performers manage to steal the show with their comic performances: Denise A. Carter, as the sarcastic Sister Mary Hubert; Jocelyn Lacy, as the equally sarcastic Sister Robert Anne; and Hillary Clinton look-alike Karen Schmitt, as the deceptively mild-mannered Sister Mary Amnesia. Yet, they are not the only ones to provide laughs, which the entire company manages to do throughout much of the performance.
The only flaws that I noticed are the writer's wordiness in some of the scenes; a slight timing lag in some of the Act I dialogue during the performance I attended; and overuse of the sign of the cross whenever the nuns pronounce the name Sister Julia, Child of God - it is funny once or twice, but after that, it becomes repetitive. However, despite these quibbles, DTW's NUNSENSE: THE MEGA-MUSICAL provides an enjoyable afternoon or evening out. I recommend that Coachella Valley audiences take advantage of this opportunity to see the show.
The rest of the cast consists of Violet Feath, Mari Kerber, Ramona Larson, Carene Riale, Daniela Ryan, and Sydnie Safoyan. The production team consists of Lance Phillips-Martinez (director, musical director, and artistic director), Ron Phillips-Martinez (executive director and props), De Lane Marianowits (stage manager and lights), Roseanne Hopkins and Karen Schmitt (choreography), Ted Plummer (sets), Briana Taylor (costumes), Alex Updike (director's assistant), Mari Kerber (director's assistant and makeup), Florentino Carrillo and Alex Updike (sound design), Kathy Taylor-Smith (light board), and Angus Feath (assistant stage manager).
DTW's mission is to present imaginative, innovative, and entertaining productions. The company, operated by married couple Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez (artistic and executive directors, respectively), is producing an ambitious seven plays and musicals during the 2014-15 season, DTW's second year. The last production of the season will be PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, by Charles Busch, billed as a "zany 60's beach comedy with one psychotic Surfer Chic," which will run from April 10-19, 2015. The 2015-2016 season will consist of THE MIRACLE WORKER, FUNNY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE, DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, STEEL MAGNOLIAS, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR, CLUE, and OTHER DESERT CITIES.
NUNSENSE: THE MEGA-MUSICAL will be presented through March 15, 2015, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7 pm and on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are available at www.dtworks.org or by calling 760-980-1455. Tickets are also available in person in the Joslyn Center lobby, at 73-750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Arthur Newman Theatre is located in the Joslyn Center. Check the Web site for more information.