Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of NUNSENSE at Playhouse On Park
Through October 13th
Kudos to Playhouse on Park (POP) for breaking the habit (pun intended) for going to see a play. Too bad there isn’t an award for Best Gestalt of a Play, because for sure, POP would win. Even before you enter the theatre to see their incarnation of the 1985 Off-Broadway smash, Nunsense, you’ll be proselytized from every conceivable angle to try to get you to convert – in this case, not to religion, but instead to feeling good.
I must be careful not to pontificate too much about the theatre’s ambience rather than the play itself – because the play is just knock-down-drag-out hilarious. For avid theatre goers, it’s a mash-up of Sister Act meets Chris Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatious Explains It All For You. I admit I kept thinking about that Catholic school joke – What’s black and white and blue all over? A nun falling down the stairs. Hey, I can make jokes like that – I was raised Catholic and this isn’t The New York Times or Fox News. And if you cannot take that kind of humor, then maybe Nunsense isn’t for you.
But I digress.
Even before my wife and I entered the theatre, there were actors outside singing inspirational medleys. The lobby was lined with votive candles, a holy water basin, and pews instead of seats! Even in the men’s room, there was a sign over the sink which read “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” The ushers and other theatre staff were dressed in Catholic school uniforms. They brought around “fish and loaves” (actually, it was Swedish fish candy and crackers) and didn’t break character once! In fact, one of the servers came out with a fresh serving and said, “Look what just appeared out of nowhere!” There was both red and white wine. Lest I forget, there was a statue of the Virgin Mary. All of the foregoing were comparable to the best warm-up comedian before an A-list act.
Now let’s get to the play itself – or not. As soon as we sat down, one of the actresses approached our section, broke the fourth wall and asked how many of us were Catholic and when was the last time we went to confession. My philosophy is not to go to church every day and confess my sins. I’d rather collect them and have one big exoneration for my last rites, that way I won’t have to repeat several thousand Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
And that breaking of the fourth wall and bringing the audience into the play set the tone for the entire evening. The casting was perfect; the nuns – I mean, the actresses – were incredible quadruple threats who could act, sing, dance, and be, well, nuns! Not caricatures, mind you, but real-life characterizations that were side-splitting hysterical. The five nuns did a tap dance number that put Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron to shame – Hallelujah and Amen!
The plot itself is hilarious – it rivals (almost) that of The Book of Mormon. It seems that this order of nuns, the Little Sisters of Hoboken, who once ran a leper colony on some island in the south of France, were decimated when one of the nuns, Sister Julia, Child of God, accidentally poisoned fifty-two residents with her corrupted vichyssoise. (Yes, I got the homage to Julia Child – the play is full of homages to various people.) It seems the Mother Superior spent all the convent’s money on an HD TV and they have four stiff nuns in the freezer still awaiting a proper Catholic burial. The only thing they can think of doing is to put on a show to try to raise funds so that they can defrost the stiffs and get rid of them. Obviously, Nunsense was written well before GoFundMe was a thing.
There were a couple of dated references (an homage to the Andrew Sisters and a reference to Elvis being alive) but, overall, the original book, music and lyrics by Dan Goggin, hold up well. Darlene Zoller did a wonderful job directing and choreographing as did music director, Melanie Guerin.
As noted, the cast was heavenly. Amanda Forker as Sister Mary Regina (Reverend Mother) was awesome and proved that laughter in and of itself can be contagious when she takes a whiff of some hallucinogen and laughs for about ten minutes straight on stage – I could not help but join in. Sister Mary Hubert (Mistress of Novices) is played to hilt by Brandi Porter who can hang notes in the air like the best hang gliders in Hawaii. Raves go to the remaining sisters, Hillary Ekwall (Sister Mary Amnesia), Lily Dickinson (Sister Robert Anne), and Rachel Oremland (Sister Mary Leo).
Without giving away any major spoilers, Sister Mary Amnesia, who was hit on the head with a crucifix, cannot remember anything about her background. It turns out she was a country singer on her way to a concert when a conversion occurs, and she became Sister Mary Paul. This is obviously an homage to St. Paul who was originally named Saul and was on his way to Damascus when he was struck by a vision and fell to the ground. OMG, my catholic upbringing is showing through! Strike that last line from this review!
The bottom line is that Nunsense is a roller coaster ride of grins, guffaws, and belly laughs interspersed with great singing and choreography. See it for your own salvation!
Peppered right off the bat into the fourth-wall breaking banter at Playhouse on Park’s incredibly funny incarnation of Nunsense, were inquiries about religion and who among the audience members attended Catholic school. I didn’t raise my hand when we were asked who was a Catholic, as I learned my lesson long ago in fifth grade, when my social studies teacher, Mr. Lipsi, asked the same question. In those few embarrassing moments as a naïve 9-year-old, I learned quickly that I couldn’t be after I also raised my hand when he asked who was Jewish. He’d chuckled as he informed me that I couldn’t be both. With a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, I later came to understand that my faith was determined by my mother’s affiliation and I was a Jew (admittedly I wasn’t raised religiously in either faith).
I also didn’t raise my hand when asked if I attended Catholic school, although I did, for first grade only, attend the Melrose School in NY, which was founded in 1963 by the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit (it has since closed). It was an Episcopal day school for kindergarten through eighth grade, and it was run by the nuns. Because of that experience, I do have an understanding, albeit brief, about what it was like to have both a religious education and nuns as teachers. My principal teacher, however, was not a nun – I believe the reason given was that it might be too “scary” for the youngest students to spend all day with a nun. I’d attended Melrose for that one year because I missed the cut off for public school and in order for them to accept me, the local school board insisted I “prove” I was academically ready by going to private school first. I was so “ready” that I was placed in the second grade for my major studies – reading and math. Therefore, I did receive most of my education from a nun – the warmest, most caring teacher I probably ever had in my entire school career.
But these nuns – the outlandish, black-and-white habit-wearing characters of Nunsense – are a zany group of ladies with whom I’d love to hang out anytime! In a dizzying retelling of the events leading up to the variety show they’re staging at Mt. Saint Helen’s School, we learn that due to a nasty batch of vichyssoise prepared by Sister Julia, Child of God (ha, ha, Julia Child, get it?), most of the Little Sisters of Hoboken filled their bellies only to eventually turn belly up. The surviving sisters were those who had been out playing Bingo. But because the Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Regina, opted to purchase a 4K HD TV, there wasn’t enough money to bury everyone. The remaining dead sisters had been kept on ice at the convent and now Sister Mary Regina and four of the living, breathing nuns must endeavor to raise enough for the final burials before anyone takes a peek into the freezer.
Nunsense is a 1985 musical comedy by Dan Goggin (Music, Book, & Lyrics) which, despite some older pop culture references, has been deftly updated to keep the flow of tears streaming down the faces of today’s audiences. While this was my first experience with the production, it is no surprise that it became the second-longest-running Off-Broadway show in history. Not since The Book of Mormon have I found off-color and slightly sacrilegious subjects so rip-roaring hysterical; in Nunsense you’ll find yourself rolling in the aisles as they sing, dance, and otherwise wax poetic about everything from the dozens of dead nuns (buried or frozen) to Board of Health inspections, leprosy, amnesia, and getting high (and not in a God-like or heavenly sort of way).
What I love about the nuns themselves, is that their distinctive, colorful, bold personalities are genuine. They don’t realize they are outlandish – we are the ones who see them that way. Sister Mary Regina is the overwrought Mother Superior who tries her level best to keep everyone in line (until she falls completely out of line at the close of Act 1). Played to the hilt by Amanda Forker, she spends so much time trying to prove to everyone she’s strict, it may actually be herself she’s trying to convince! Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices, is played by the incredible Brandi Porter. She’s mostly restrained, and always butting heads with the Reverend Mother, but it’s clear she’s ready to let loose when the moment allows. Plus, she’s got a voice that could rival the most spectacular church pipe organ. Hillary Ekwall is the sweetly innocent Sister Mary Amnesia, who suffered – you guessed it – amnesia when a crucifix fell on her head. Ekwall is a delight as the innocent nun who, like in Hand to God, has a puppet alter ego named Sister Mary Annette; the cloth version of her who can’t be tamed. Sister Robert Anne, played by Lily Dickinson, is from Brooklyn and one tough cookie – crispy on the outside but warm and gooey on the inside. And boy can she belt it out! Sister Mary Leo, played by Rachel Oremland is not only a fabulous dancer but impishly cute. As these sisters pool their talents in the middle school auditorium, anything goes and it often does. At least in Nunsense, one doesn’t have to ponder whether all nuns lead simple lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience – because for these five, while God may have called them to service, they’ve found ways to poke holes in the vows without deflating them completely.
In Playhouse on Park’s Nunsense, the songs are infectious, the energy is through the roof, and the level of talent will blow you away. Backed by an uber talented on-stage band who also are in costume, kudos to Melanie Guerin, Music Director, Conductor, and a talent on keyboard; Elliot Wallace on drums; Mallory Kokus on reeds; and Phoebe Suzuki on violin. A huge hand to Darlene Zoller, Playhouse’s Artistic Director, for choosing this wonderful production to open the Playhouse’s season and as the show’s Director and Choreographer extraordinaire. Shout outs to Johann Fitzpatrick as Scenic Designer; Joel Abbott as Sound Designer; Shane Cassidy as Lighting Designer; Lisa Ann Steier as Costume Designer; Mollie Cook as Stage Manager; and Eileen O’Connor as Props Artisan/Set Dresser.
It’s also the little things that sometimes make it all come together and set the mood. Playhouse on Park pulled out all the stops with costumed staff who milled around the lobby on press night with “loaves and fishes” (crackers and Swedish fish) and of course wine! There were also church pews in place of some of the lobby seating, religious artifacts, and funny signs on the walls (even in the bathroom!). You don’t need to be Catholic or know all the ins and outs of Catholicism to appreciate the humorous plight of the Little Sisters of Hoboken. And for a great night (or day) of entertainment after which you won’t have to go to confession, make sure to catch Nunsense while you can!