By Donald V. Calamia, EncoreMichigan.com
Since their off-Broadway debut in 1985, The Little Sisters of Hoboken are among the most famous nuns ever to hit the stage. They pop up pretty much everywhere, on stages large and small, and they generally pack the house with an appreciative audience who can’t seem to get enough of their crazy antics – so much so, that the original “Nunsense” has spawned a half-dozen or so sequels and three spin offs. Obviously, creator Dan Goggin knows how to build and maintain a successful franchise.
But nuns? Who’d a thought!
Actually, as Goggin and Maripat Donovan of the “Late Night Catechism” series have discovered, nuns sell – and the latest theater hoping to be blessed with a heavenly bonanza of ticket sales is The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, which is presenting the initial “Nunsense” through June 10.
The premise – for the five or so of you who haven’t seen the show yet – is simple: A cooking accident by convent cook Sister Julia, Child of God, has wiped out 52 members of the Little Sisters of Hoboken. Forty-eight of them have been buried, but a purchase of a new VCR by the Mother Superior has left them short of funds to send the remaining four to their heavenly reward. (They’re currently “on ice” in the convent refrigerator.) So the surviving nuns decide to put on a show to raise the remaining burial funds. And as luck would have it, several of the good sisters have stars in their eyes and the talent to pull it off.
As the nuns say in an early song, Goggin’s purpose is to show “the humor of the nun,” and as you can imagine, “Nunsense” does indeed show the human side of what was once a very mysterious (and sometimes spooky) group of women who educated generations of Catholic kids throughout the world. The humor is silly and mostly clean – with a few groaners tossed here and there for good measure – and the songs help move the story along.
But the success of the show depends on the women who wear the habits and bring Goggin’s characters to life. And in the regard, The Encore’s production has been blessed with a talented and hardworking cast, thanks to Director and Choreographer Barbara F. Cullen.
Each of the women creates a unique and identifiable character. Barbara Scanlon’s Sister Mary Regina (the Mother Superior) tackles the role reminiscent of the late character actress Dody Goodman. (For you younger-folk who haven’t a clue who that is, that’s a compliment.) Madison Deadman’s Sister Mary Leo, the novice, is sweet and angelic, while Mary Rumman’s flexible and expressive face is perfect for Sister Mary Amnesia. Sue Booth as the tough, Brooklyn-born Sister Robert Anne is fun to watch, thanks to her gestures. And Amy Smidebush shakes the rafters with the gospel-inspired “Holier Than Thou” at the show’s conclusion.
As I left the show after the opening night performance, I was a bit perplexed. “Something was missing,” I thought – and then it hit me: I realized the show’s strongest assets are the singing voices (although a few are sometimes too soft to reach much beyond the first few rows); the comedy is a distant second.
Having seen far more productions of the original “Nunsense” than I can remember, I usually leave the show thoroughly entertained by the silly comedy. Yes, the plot is fairly thin and the jokes are hokey, but in Cullen’s production, the comedy seems to be an afterthought – or something to be plowed through until the next musical number. As such, many of the jokes fall flat, or are delivered too quickly. “Didn’t they understand them?” I wondered. “Or were they not comfortable yet with the comedy?” I’m still not sure what the disconnect is.
But the musical numbers? They were generally well delivered and fun, culminating in Smidebush’s knock-em-dead final song.
The production’s technical elements all serve the show well, from Leo Babcock’s set to Daniel Walker’s lights.
So while Cullen and company reach for the heavens with their production of “Nunsense,” they fall somewhat short – just like most of us do in our daily lives. And isn’t that what the good sisters taught me way back in grade school?
For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan.com
Donald V. Calamia is the editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. He is also the theater editor of Between The Lines, for which he created The Wilde Awards, a “must attend” annual event at Detroit’s Gem Theatre that honors the work produced by the state’s professional theaters. Calamia is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Theatre Critics Association.