Playwright Dan Goggins was once given the gift of a mannequin and a nun’s habit by some friends. He took to dressing the dummy in the habit and posing it doing various chores around the apartment, which his friends found hilarious. He came to the conclusion that nearly everything was funny if it was being done by a nun and thus was born the phenomenon that is “Nunsense” (this week’s Music Circus show), first presented off Broadway in 1985 and which has now spawned five sequels: “Nunsense II,” the country music-themed “Nunsense Jamboree,” the holiday show, “Nuncrackers,” “MeshuggahNuns” (which takes place on a cruise ship) and “Nunsense A-Men!” (the original production performed in drag). In May a “Nunsense” museum opened at the Campbell Theater in Martinez and the phenomenon keeps growing.
Music Circus last presented “Nunsense” in 1995, with the indomitable Joanne Worley in the lead role. Now it’s back, with updated material (Paris Hilton, the butt of one of the jokes, was only 4 years old when the original musical premiered, for example).
The story takes place in the “cafegymnasium” of Mt. St. Helen’s School, run by the Little Sisters of Hoboken, who are putting on a show to raise money to bury four nuns. You see, some time ago,19 of the nuns went off to play Bingo, and in their absence, Sister Julia (Child of God) prepared vichyssoise for the rest of the convent. The soup turned out to be laced with botulism, and when the Bingo players returned, they found their sisters face down in their bowls of soup. (We never see Sister Julia (Child of God), but she’s apparently still cooking for the convent.)
The remaining nuns held a greeting card sale and earned enough money to bury the dead nuns, but Reverend Mother (Alyson Reed) took part of the proceeds to buy the convent a TIVO and so they lack the funds to bury the last four nuns, who have remained in the convent freezer all this time. But the health inspectors are coming and things are crucial. This is their last ditch effort to finally send the frozen nuns to their heavenly reward.
We learn all this in the first five minutes. The rest of the show is music, stand up comedy, dance, slapstick and just a whole lot of fun. It pokes fun at Catholics, nuns, politics, celebrities, and just about everything that it can along the way. And, though the humor occasionally borders on the offensive (I could have done without the stories of the leper colony where they served prior to their relocation to Hoboken), they almost get by without a penguin joke.
The music is mostly forgettable, but ranges from hauntingly beautiful Gregorian chant to raucous numbers like “We’ve Got to Clean out the Freezer” and “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.”
Director D.J. Salisbury has directed a sprightly production with a knock-out cast of five talented women. Alyson Reed is the beloved Reverend Mother who hails from the small town of Kilquirky in Ireland. Reed is so believable that she will have you sitting up straighter and answering “Yes, Sister” to all her questions. She is a marvelous comedienne who is as good at physical slapstick humor as she is with the one-liners.
Sister Mary Hubert (Allison Blackwell) is Mistress of Novices. She’s the real backbone of the convent but must try to keep her ambition to be Reverend Mother to herself. She and the “RevMo” have been friends forever and Mary Hubert leads a show-stopping “Holier than Thou” at the end of the show.
Sister Mary Leo (Taryn Darr) was a professional dancer before joining the convent and her interpretive dance, “Morning at the Convent” was very funny, but her Dying Nun Ballet (“Soup’s On”) is...well...to die for.
Sister Robert Ann (Erin Maguire) is a child of a disadvantaged Brooklyn family, a tough street-wise nun with a heart of gold. It has always been her dream to be a star, but she is relegated to understudy. However, when misfortune befalls Reverend Mother, she gets her chance to shine, and shine she does. Maguire has performed with “Forbidden Broadway” in New York, and anyone who has seen that show will not be surprised at the breadth of her talent. Her Liza Minnelli impression is spot-on.
Sister Mary Amnesia (Michele Ragusa) showed up at the convent one day, wearing a habit but with no memory of her name or how she happened to be there. All she can remember is that a crucifix fell on her head. She’s a little spacy, but Ragusa is simply adorable and her quiz for the audience was very funny.
This may not be a great show for kids (the young man sitting next to me looked pretty confused), but it’s very funny and most people will love it.