By John Quinn, Encore Michigan
My college literature professor, Theophilus Punoval, related that author Samuel Johnson considered the pun the “lowest form of humor.” Clearly neither the good doctor nor the professor ever caught an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” but I digress.
Puns can not only be funny (punny?), they can be satisfyingly descriptive. I mean, what can be more apt than a Muppet-inspired character named Sister Mary Annette? (Say it out loud. You’ll catch on.)
Consider also the title of Dan Goggin’s 1985 hit, “Nunsense.” The musical is silly, superficial and a strain on your suspension of disbelief. But all this nonsense rolled up impressive box office numbers, and “Nunsense” is the second-longest running off-Broadway production, surpassed only by “The Fantastiks.”
It’s spawned a number of sequels; the latest, “Nunset Boulevard,” leads off the New Year at Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Rd., Rochester, and continues through January 29.
In “Nunsense,” the surviving members of the Little Sisters of Hoboken Convent at Mount St. Helen’s Parish staged a variety show to raise funds. Since then, the stage-struck quintet is in the habit of treading the boards whenever the offering plate runs dry. This time they’ve been coerced into a trip to L.A., thinking they were booked for the Hollywood Bowl. Their venue is actually the seedy Hollywood Bowl-a-Rama and Cabaret Lounge. Unshaken, our plucky band proceeds in the finest “show must go on” tradition.
An unlikely source (the afore-mentioned Sr. Mary Annette) drops the hint that auditions are being held for “Nunset Boulevard,” the bio-pic of actress Dolores Hart (“Where the Boys Are”), who left film and took the veil at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. With more stars in their eyes than on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the sisters think they’re naturals for the film. After all, they don’t have to ACT like nuns; they ARE nuns.
Granted, that plot is about as solid as a Kardashian marriage vow, but it only needs to provide an excuse for musical numbers and two awful audience participation games, “Sisters in Cinema” and “The Price is Righteous.” In all, the humor in “Nunset Boulevard” is derived less from the Church and more from Babylon on the Pacific. Of course, there is whimsy in watching a be-wimpled chorus line kick up their heels in sensible black shoes. But the charm of “Boulevard” is in the performances rather than the material. We aren’t disappointed.
Playwright Dan Goggin revives his characters: Sister Robert Anne (Teri Gibson), a Brooklyn-born wiseacre; Mother Superior Mary Regina (Laurie Birmingham), a former circus performer fond of recalling her past; her competitive Number One, Sister Mary Hubert (Bambi Jones); Sister Mary Leo (Stephanie Wahl), the Dancing Nun; and Sister Mary Paul (Jeanne Tinker), who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. Since she has regained her memory, she is no longer Sister Amnesia, but still retains a childlike wonder and innocence. Bonnie Lee will be stepping into the role of Mother Superior after the 18th.
All five women are in great voice, capable of big belt and soft quaver alike. Conductor “Brother” Michael Rice fronts a quartet of musicians; Mike Duncan’s sound design provides a beautiful balance between words and music. Teri Gibson does double duty as choreographer; the dance numbers are a little madcap but entertaining. In sum, a hint of classic vaudeville pervades this show.
“Nunset Boulevard” doesn’t pretend to be “The Song of Bernadette,” so it would not be a nun sequitur if I suggest that a light dose of harmless humor might be the antidote to dark January nights.
John Quinn reviews local theater productions for http://www.encoremichigan.com/, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.