The gals in black-and-white are back as Crown City Theatre celebrates three decades of Nunsense with a crowd-pleasing 30th-anniversary revival that makes it abundantly clear why Dan Goggin’s Singing-Nuns Musical took New York by storm back in ’85 before going on to become the 2nd-longest-running show in off-Broadway history. (Talk about Fantastick!)
Nunsense The Musical imagines that these cards were born out of necessity when a an attack of food poisoning (tainted vichyssoise prepared by Sister Julia Child of God) killed fifty-two missionary nuns spreading the Good News on an island south of France, leaving only nineteen of them to carry on God’s work back in New Jersey.
As Goggin’s book would have it, the Little Sisters’ greeting cards were their way of raising burial funds, and with profits to spare (or so it seemed), Mother Superior splurged on a top-of-the-line Blu-ray player … and now there’s not enough money to bury the last four nuns, currently awaiting their turns in the convent freezer.
And so the Hoboken nuns decide to put on a show (and the rest, as they say, is off-Broadway history).
Recent Ovation Award nominee Michelle Holmes stars as Irish-brogued Sister Mary Regina, Mother Superior, whose life journey has taken her from the circus to the convent, with enough big-top oomph left in her to ring-lead the evening’s nunstravaganza.
Aiding the Reverend Mother are the four most talented of the surviving nuns. They are:
• Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress Of Novices (Renee Cohen), who doesn’t mind being second-in-command because, as she puts it in song, “The Biggest Ain’t The Best.” (“Don’t demand the spotlight, let the spotlight come to you.”)
• Sister Robert Anne (Lisa Dyson), a Brooklyn tough girl who compares her frustration at “Playing Second Fiddle” to tonight’s leading lady to the way Bibi Osterwald must have felt while understudying Hello, Dolly!’s never-missed-a-performance star. (“Carol Channing wasn’t sick, so Bibi wasn’t called.”)
• Sister Mary Amnesia (Kelley Dorney), so named because of the memory loss she suffered when a crucifix fell and hit her on the noggin. (“My name is Sister Mary—oh, for a moment I thought I remembered my real name.”)
• Sister Mary Leo (Shayna Gabrielle), who’s not about to let her dreams of becoming a ballerina be shattered by a little thing like vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. (“I can have a perfect day if I start off with a tour jeté.)
Over the course of the next two hours of music and laughs, the nuns of Nunsense do what they’ve been doing best for the past thirty years. They entertain, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic (practicing or recovering), Protestant, Agnostic, Atheist, or of any other religious or non-religious bent, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being charmed by these five singing-dancing sisters, particularly as performed by some of the Southland’s finest musical theater leading ladies, both established and on-the-rise.
Kristin Towers-Rowles directs these five fabulous females with the same freshness and flair that she brought to the all-male Altar Boyz, and if these Altar Girlz reveal a good deal less of their physical pulchritude than the Boyz, they are second to none in the talent department.
Holmes couldn’t be more divine as the initially prim-and-proper mother Mother Superior, who stops the show with a pizzazzy “Turn Up the Spotlight,” then abandons all decorum to hilarious effect under a poppers-induced high, answering the age-old question, “What are they hiding under their habits?”
Cohen combines power and pep and great big vocals as the unfortunately named Sister Mary Hubert (Hubert?), leading the merry band in the show-stopping, toe-tapping Act Two grand finale, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step.”
As Sister Robert Anne, Dyson reprises one of her signature roles to splendidly spunky effect, and just wait till she does her interpretations of Sisters Pocahontas, Heidi, Pippi Longstockings, and more—with nothing but a few twists of a veil.
Gabrielle could not be more delightful as ballerina wannabe Sister Mary Leo, displaying en pointe grace in “Benedicite” and later, a more lighthearted side to her dance prowess in in “Soup’s On,” aka The Dying Nun Ballet, with a tip of the wimple to Sally Field’s Sister Bertrille.
Last but not least is the sensational Dorney, making it four star turns in a row with her deliciously ditzy Sister Mary Amnesia, who earns added points for puppeteering potty-mothed Sister Mary Annette in “So You Want To Be A Nun” and belting out “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville” to do Loretta Lynn proud.
Lisaun Whiittingham scores high marks throughout for her inventive choreography, integrating Broadway and girl-group moves with ballet, jazz, and tap.
Musical director William A. Reilly merits cheers for layering prerecorded instrumental tracks, providing live piano accompaniment, and eliciting sterling cast vocals, including Sisters Amnesia, Robert Anne, and Leo’s Andrews Sisters tribute, “The Drive-In.”
As for the Nunsense scenic design, if you think it looks suspiciously like the one from Grease, you’re absolutely right, the Nuns having borrowed both set and props from the Eighth Graders of Saint Helen School’s production of the musical Mother Superior persists in calling Vaseline.
Costume designer Tanya Apuya gives us not merely the requisite old-style black-and-white habits but tweaks them to audience delight. (The fruit-and-flowers “Convent Miranda” headdress is a particular hoot.)
Zad Potter’s lighting is first-rate, the designer doubling as production stage manager, and Joe Shea’s sound design insures a just-right mix of vocals and instrumentals.
Michael Marchak is assistant choreographer. Chris Thume has provided a hilarious video sequence. Michael Pammit is house technical manager. Elizabeth Jane Charlton, Karen Christie, Kristin Farrell, Alix Isom, and Amanda Walter understudy.
Few would have thought back in 1985 that five singing nuns would still be doing their Nunsensical thing three decades later, but as Crown City Theatre’s nunsational, nuntastic revival make anundantly clear (and despite scenic design evidence to the contrary), Grease is no longer the word.
Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.
December 19, 2105
Photos: Christopher J. Thume