BWW Review: Old Habits Die Hard in NUNSENSE at St. Vincent

BWW Review: Old Habits Die Hard in NUNSENSE at St. Vincent

One of my lingering questions in the world of the theatre is why certain things succeed and certain things flop for seemingly arbitrary reasons. A perfect example: why do people love Nunsense so much? Can you name another musical with nearly a dozen sequels and spinoffs? (If you're keeping score, Very Potter has three musicals, The Marvelous Wonderettes three also, Forever Plaid two and a half, and Annie has two competing sequels.) And all this for a goofy vaudeville throwback based on a series of greeting cards. The music is weak, the jokes are hackneyed, and the central conceit comes down to nothing but "nuns doing funny things equals comedy gold." And yet... and yet... the first Nunsense works better than the sum of its parts. As directed by Gregg Brandt and choreographed by Renata Marino, Nunsense gives audiences exactly what they expect and want from a singing nun musical that isn't about The Singing Nun.

There's barely an overarching plot to the show, which has more in common with vaudeville or sketch comedy than a plot-based musical. If you imagine Sister Act mixed with Golden Girls, you're halfway there. The closest analogue, in fact, is probably The Muppet Show, as both deal with a scrappy collection of eccentric players and their hassles as they keep the show on the rails. The Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina (Allison Cahill), and the other members of her convent- depicted in universe as both the nuns from the classic greeting cards, and the creators of those cards- started a greeting card company to pay for the burial of several nuns killed in a cooking experiment gone wrong. This being a comedy, Mother Superior immediately squanders their newfound wealth on home-theatre equipment, so she and the rest of the surviving nuns decide to put on a show for charity. And, for the most part, that's about it. You don't get a story so much as a series of comedic interludes and character vignettes strung together with the loose plot. Sister Mary Amnesia (Greta Kleckner) is suffering memory loss and some mild-to-moderate brain damage after a crucifix fell on her head; Sister Mary Leo (Beth DeMichele), the youngest nun, hasn't quite let go of her flamboyant pride as a former ballerina; Sister Robert Anne (Brittany Silver) is an attention-seeing ham; Sister Mary Hubert (Molly Tower) is sassy. The jokes, to some extent, write themselves.

Although nothing is entirely original about Nunsense, that quickly becomes part of the charm. The jokes are mostly hoary old things, a mix of standard Catholic jokes and dirty-but-not-too-dirty double entendres of the kind you might have heard from Johnny Carson. "Recipe for a boy scout's treat: Get twelve Brownies really hot..." Inevitably, the audience chuckles and groans in equal measure, which is by design: there is no fourth wall in this show, and the cast banter and bicker with the audience over one-liners that don't land, impressions that don't play well, and the overall corniness of their variety show. Luckily, director Brandt does not overdirect this lightweight material, letting it breathe and even shamble a little; similarly, choreographer Marino eschews Broadway polish in favor of loose-limbed Carol Burnett style staging, with plenty of seemingly-off-the-cuff kicklines and vaudeville shimmies. (More intricately choreographed numbers like Beth DeMichele's dance solo are more polished by intent, and show more nuance to both the choreographer's and cast's talents.)

With the somewhat modular nature of the material, each cast gets a moment to shine, seemingly tailored just to them. Though Mother Superior may often play the straight-man to the rest of the cutups, Allison Cahill gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening in the final sketch of Act 1, when the straight-laced elder nun accidentally gets VERY high and amuses herself doing prop comedy with a bar stool. As her counterpart Mary Hubert, Molly Towler gets off some great stone-faced one-liners and put-downs, particularly in her "Bosom Buddies" style duet with Cahill. Towler's larger-than-life voice is also showcased well in the closing number, a gospel sendup called "Holier Than Thou." As previously mentioned, Beth DeMichele's dancing is best in show, but the mix of innocent postulant sweetness and delusions of grandeur she brings to young Mary Leo makes her a versatile player- straight man one scene, comic star the next.

As the manic, mugging Sister Robert Anne, Brittany Silver gets the showiest role, with the most to sing and the most feature bits. Like Fozzie Bear, watching Silver careen through Robert Anne's parade of groaners and clunkers without ever losing her enthusiasm is a delight- in a way, it's almost funnier than if the jokes were actually good. Silver spends a good portion of the show running back and forth, mugging like a Martin Short sketch character, doing impressions and prop comedy and anything she can think of to get a laugh from the stone-faced Mother Superior. Maybe it's because I'm an actor and writer, but there's something in Silver's Robert Anne that speaks to the power of performing: not necessarily to change worlds or minds or anything heavy, but in just letting yourself be out there, having fun and not caring whether the show hits or flops, or what the critics will say. (Am I bitter that the New York Times hated my last musical? Noooo...)

Last, but not least, Greta Kleckner is the cast's strongest improviser, shining in her moments of audience interaction and bantering with audience members like a pro. Additionally, Kleckner has a tough task as Mary Amnesia: allowing herself to be the punchline of brain-damage jokes in a way that remains light and comic without becoming offensive. As the film Tropic Thunder pointed out, able-bodied and able-minded actors can "never go full-r****d" without becoming either unintentionally offensive, or unbearably saccharine and condescending. Kleckner gives Mary Amnesia a vacant stare and a childlike, innocent demeanor, but shies away from anything that could be too close to a caricature of the disabled... even when the script makes that difficult. A sketch in which Mary Amnesia displays her arts-and-crafts handiwork elicited nervous laughter from the audience, which suddenly seemed unsure of exactly how "special" we are supposed to assume Mary Amnesia is.

This being a St. Vincent show, audience regulars will be pleased to note that resident comic leading man Cav O'Leary, serving here as assistant stage manager, makes a brief cameo here as a grumpy priest serving as stage crew. He doesn't have many lines or any clever business, but his mere appearance, complete with signature hangdog expression, elicits laughs from an audience that, by and large, associates O'Leary with St. Vincent Summer Theatre mirth.

Traditional script updates aside- Chopped replacing Martha Stewart, an enormous high-def TV replacing a VCR as an expensive home theatre purchase- Nunsense feels very much of its time... in fact it feels behind the times even for the 1980s, more Carol Burnett than SCTV. (This is also a fairly young cast in a show often played much older, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't; the show being perpetually kept in the present day makes references to young Robert Anne being a 1960s style street urchin before Vatican II reforms somewhat incongruous.) Despite this, the throwback quality works in the show's favor. Since nuns in full-time clerical garb are increasingly rare today, the mere sight of five of "God's Penguins" singing and dancing has become surreal, almost absurd. Putting them in the context of an out-of-style variety show format only makes these wacky characters stand out even more. Dan Goggin might not have expected that effect when he wrote the show three decades ago, but he's certainly smart enough to know a good thing when he sees it- and so, apparently, was the wildly appreciative audience, which howled with laughter at the nuns and their antics. (I'll admit, even I burst a gut when the nuns did their cooking-show routine- knowing the punchline to the old "how to stuff a turkey" bit in advanced only made the anticipation funnier.) When the show leaves its stylistic confines and allows itself to get grotesque, even macabre (such as an extended musical number about leper colonies), there's a spark of brilliance hidden in the otherwise affable show. It's easy to speculate about what it would have been like had Goggin written a perverse black comedy about nuns in a lethally incompetent convent, but I can almost guarantee such a show would have been a flop, not a thirty-year audience favorite.

One final, stray observation: as I headed to the restroom at intermission, I passed a couple just shy of reaching middle age, who were grousing about the show's (relatively mild) content. "It's sacreligious," the man complained to his wife. "Nuns don't sing and dance, and they don't tell off-color jokes." I took a long drink from the fountain to conceal my smirk; as someone who went to Catholic middle school and a liberal Catholic college, all I could think was, "Mister, you have NO idea."



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