“Nunsense” was seen as innovative when premiered in 1985, as it good-heartedly skewered Catholic myths in which boomers were raised to believe.
Since that time, it has spawned sequels and spin-off variations of the same idea of nuns interacting with an audience, who all too well remember the trials, tribulations and joys of being schooled by “brides of Christ.” Being raised Catholic and being a boomer, no doubt, gives the show more context, but it also works for anyone with a religious background who has come in contact with a certain amount of spiritual malarkey of Biblical proportions.
“Sister’s Christmas Catechism” recently ran at Bucks County Center for the Performing Arts, and it is similar in scope and feel. “Nunsense” preceded the Catholic nun catechism series, but was after “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” and has been the most successful of the genre. The script used for “Nunsense A-Men!” is the same as the original, called simply “Nunsense.”
It evolved from a cabaret show at the Duplex in the Village in New York, and was expanded, ending up for over a decade on Theater Row at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater, where it seemed a mainstay. It is the second longest Off-Broadway show, with only the “Fantastiks” running longer. I saw it in the late Eighties with a female cast. This is the male version, which adds another level of hilarity. Nuns never did have a sexual/gender sense of direction — or so it always seemed to me. In habits that disguise all sexual identity, it is easy to accept the gender switch. At least one of my nuns in real life had a mustache and all my real-life nuns seemed very proficient at softball.
The cast is as intoxicating as a bottle of Blue Nun, a wine from Germany, but this pun goes further. In the case of the show, a blue nun is one of the four nuns that are on ice waiting to be buried, as soon as the convent gets the funds to put them in the ground.
What happened was unfortunate. The sisterhood had 71 nuns in it, until a fateful night of Bingo and some bad vichyssoise cooked up by Sister Julia Child of God. Now there are 52 of them dead from food poisoning, but four of them are still on ice and haven’t been buried yet. In a true “Let’s put on a show!” moment, they are doing a talent show to get enough dough to lay to rest the quartet of nuns that remain dead and in the freezer.
Top talent has taken the veil and are treading the boards. This includes the amazing David Whiteman. He was last seen as Scrooge at Music Mountain, and is now Mother Superior Sister Mary Regina. Within a month, he has done a 180-degree turn in tone, temperament and personality, but what both performances show off is his great ability to physicalize a character. His talents are especially on display when the good sister gets high and slapstick ensues.
The other nuns onstage include Sr. Mary Hubert, Sister Mary Amnesia, Sr. Mary Leo and Sister Robert Anne. All of the nuns are “Mary” this and “Mary” that, with the exception of the butchest one who drives the car, who has the deeper voice, Sr. Robert Anne. Her first name is male. The nuns noticed something, I guess.
All nuns are allowed to shine in this two-act musical by Dan Goggin. The songs are fun and lively, as is the script. To that point, it was so much fun that in 1985 it won Best Musical, Best Music and Best Book from the Outer Critics Circle. It is not surprising that so many have been attracted to doing the show. Over 25,000 performers have performed the roles, and the show has grossed over 500 million dollars.
So again, no wonder that following in the footsteps of Darlene Love, we have Michael Moeller as Sister Mary Hubert banging out the soulful gospel song “Holier than Thou.” We also have Louis Palena as Sr. Mary Amnesia, sharing the same role and wimple with Mimi Hines. Palena is every bit as cute as Hines in the role. He has you in the aisles doing a ventriloquist act with his dummy counterpart, Sr. Mary Annette, on the song “So You Want to Be a Nun.” This sad religious man had been hit over the head with Jesus on the Cross and due to that falling crucifix, and has never been the same since. Jordan Brennan dances, no doubt, even more divinely than Georgia Engel in a previous show, as former dancer Sister Mary Leo. He couldn’t be more on point when en pointe. Patrick Lavery is Sister Robert Anne. The good sister is so frustrated throughout the show, because she is the understudy in the variety show and it doesn’t look like she will get her chance to shine for Jesus. His “I Just Want to Be a Star” knocks it out of the park. Lavery had his own predecessors (Lee Merriweather, et al) but, after that song, he owned Sr. Robert Anne, if a nun can be owned.
“Nunsense” is nonsense, but that is the whole idea. No matter who you are or your religious affiliation, this is a show based on love and values, kindness and fun. The tunes are catchy. There is audience involvement. Don’t stay home — fill the pews and lift a joyous voice. You will be putting your hands together. The nuns will do it to pray, and you will to applaud.
The show runs through Sunday, Jan. 19, and tickets are available online.