By Philip Pearce
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE about Nunsense? It’s been a wacky crowd pleaser since it launched a ten-year run Off Broadway in 1985. I thoroughly enjoyed the fast and funny version that opened last Friday at Paper Wing Theatre Company’s Hoffman Street venue.
It’s all about the Little Sisters of Hoboken, a Catholic order that has dwindled overnight from a membership of 71 to the lucky 19 who survived Sister Julia Child of God’s toxic Vichyssoise only because that dinnertime they were off playing cut-throat Bingo with some Maryknoll sisters.
Responding to a divine vision, resourceful Reverend Mother Mary Regina bankrolled a mass burial by selling greeting cards, but ended up with only enough cash to cover funerals for 48 of the 52 victims. So the four unburied sisters remain on hold in the convent freezer while the surviving nuns think of ways to raise enough money to inter them. The five sisters chosen to stage a fundraiser revue in the gym of the convent school seem to regard all of this as little more than a temporary setback in convent hygiene and food storage. Just raise some big dollars and keep the Hoboken City Health Inspector at bay and all will be well. Their make-do insouciance gives Dan Goggins’ musical a lot of its ditsy surreal charm.
With a show like Nunsense it’s all in the casting, and Paper Wing has recruited five really marvelous women, all of whom can sing and dance and act up a storm. What we watch, full of fits and starts and startling improvised shenanigans, is the convent’s fundraiser follies, staged with plenty of energy and a big helping of audience participation.
As Reverend Mother Mary Regina, the lead act and boss lady of the outfit, Linda Felice is a bouncy, determined little Irish whirlwind. Like three other of the gymnasium song and dance team, she has a background in show business, having improvidently promised the Almighty she would become a nun if He would rescue her parents who had just fallen off a tight-rope wire into the Thames. He kept His word, so she kept hers. Her main challenge on opening night comes when she guilelessly sniffs a small bottle found in the gym locker of one of the schoolgirls and climaxes Act 1 high as a kite and very funny at it too.
Her temporary collapse is a godsend to her understudy, a street-wise Brooklyn movie fan named Sister Robert Anne. Robert Anne dreams of copying Ruby Keeler by going on (“I Just Want to Be a Star”) when the leading lady can’t appear. Katie Day plays this tirelessly ambitious hoofer with a lot of zest and twinkle as she rifles the school costume trunk or adjusts her veil and wimple to emulate past screen favorites ranging from Margaret Hamilton screaming at her monkeys in The Wizard of Oz to Katharine Hepburn announcing that the calla lilies are in bloom in Stage Door.
These and other brief remembrances of old-time screen notables are one way in which Nunsense shows its age. I found myself doing some lone-wolf geriatric laughing when the rest of the opening night audience was just silently happy but puzzled.
The only sister who seems not to have grown up with the smell of grease paint in her nostrils is Sister Mary Hubert, whose function is to support rather than undermine Reverend Mother (“Just a Coupla Sisters”) and to add a note of explosive Pentecostal leadership to a closing chorus number called “Holier Than Thou.”
She is played by the gifted and authoritative Kate Bradley Faber, who has also directed the piece with plenty of verve and a lot of smart use of the set. Paper Wing seems ready to list set builders and painters but not set designers. It’s a shame, because this is a clever design, supposedly set up for a concurrent school production of Grease, a background that doesn’t faze the sisters one bit as they sing, kick and tap their way (“Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step”) around images of Elvis and 1950s soda fountain equipment.
Sister Hubert’s function in the convent is to supervise novices like Sister Mary Leo, played by the winsome and supple Mindy Whitfield. Mary Leo’s ambition is to become the world’s first ballerina nun. Her swan-like flutters and staggerings in a wild ballet called “The Dying Nun” is a total hoot. Based on the unhappy fate of the Vichyssoise victims, it also features the quick-change artistry of Robert Anne, first in the role of a cook with a ladle full of poison and then as the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. Reverend Mother manages to halt the number, but, as usual, not before the embarrassing damage has already been done.
Fifth performing nun in the chorus line is the pathetic, ever hopeful Sister Mary Amnesia, a stray religious adoptee who has been unable to remember things, including who she is, since being bonked on the head by a falling crucifix. She is touchingly vague but eager as she takes on such assignments as a ventriloquist act with a potty-mouthed dummy named Sister Mary Annette (get it?). I particularly liked the key moment where she finally remembers her name and who she is in “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville,” a song which, like Robert Anne’s “Growing Up Catholic” breaks through all the horseplay and adds some wistful nostalgia to the proceedings. The revelation of Mary Amnesia’s showbiz roots not only clears up her mental problems but clears the freezer of corpses and puts the convent back in the black, with a little help from Ed McMahon and the Publishers Clearing House.
Pleasing as it all is, there are moments that could use some tightening. I liked the idea of a nuns’ cooking show but the jokes weren’t clearly projected and Reverend Mother’s struggles with an unconvincing chef’s hat were obviously an annoying costume malfunction rather than a planned piece of stage comedy.
But you can’t win ’em all on opening night, and Nunsense, which I’d never experienced before, was an evening of delightful fun and surprises.