OGDEN — The Ziegfeld Theatre‘s production of Dan Goggin‘s Nunsense is the sappy, light-hearted romp you’d expect from the title. The story is ridiculous and simple: after a tragic accidental poisoning of fifty-two of their nuns, the nineteen surviving Little Sisters of Hoboken need burial money for the last of their deceased sisters (whose bodies just happen to be currently stored in the deep freezer).
Five Hoboken nuns decide to host a fundraiser variety show, complete with solos, group numbers, a pop quiz, and even dancing. They don’t worry about the set as the eighth-graders at the nuns’ school, Mt. Saint Helen’s, are said to be practicing Grease. The set for Nunsense then is for Grease instead and reflects the low-budget simplicity of a group of eighth-grade performers: cut-out car and jukebox included. Kudos to set designer Erica Choffel for a believably kitschy design. The ensuing musical comedy runs as if the audience is actually attending to raise funds for the nuns (not see a play with actors at the Ziegfeld); there is no fourth wall, and audience referencing and participation is regular.
The Ziegfeld embraces the show’s unique format. The theatre lobby has posters and notices all from the Little Sisters of Hoboken, as if you really are at Mt. Saint Helen’s School auditorium. When you hand your ticket to the usher, he thanks you for coming to this fundraiser for the nuns. Soon after the audience is seated, the actors themselves start mingling with the audience as if they really were nuns grateful for the support. Even the opening theatre announcements—the general “no cell phones, no photography” run-down—is done by the Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Regina (played by Carolyn Stevens) as if she were using the school PA, with Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert (played by Allisha Larsen) there to help. These details add to the excitement and upbeat mood for this comedy.
Though everyone in the small cast of five women performs well, Carolyn Stevens as Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Regina, is the glue that holds the show together. Stevens’ Reverend Mother is the perfect mother hen to the other sisters, and she delivers her comedic lines with timing and tone that make her seem real. A highlight of her performance is Stevens’ solo number, “Turn Up the Spotlight,” in which her storytelling through song is engaging. In addition to her vocal performance, Stevens convincingly pretends to balance on a tightrope in the middle of the stage. The show gets a little awkward when Reverend Mother accidentally gets high, not so much for the content but for the fact that the scene plays in my opinion as too one-note, with Stevens’ Reverend Mother acting excessively hyper and out-of-it throughout the scene.
Director Kristin Parry excelled at creating a believable, tight-knit energy between the cast. The humor overall plays well, but toward the end of the first act, when cast members sing, “Lilacs Bring Back Memories,” the pacing spurts and the jokes begin to feel flat. Perhaps if the cast created more levels in their humor and energy, instead of relying on the hyper-silliness that pervades the show, scenes like this one wouldn’t start to feel old too fast. This comedy is so full of jokes and funny moments that you really need relief from the comedy, moments like the refreshingly honest song, “Growing Up Catholic” that starts act 2. “Growing Up Catholic,” headlining Mariah House’s Sister Roberta Anne, is a lovely and heartfelt song that provides the calm interlude so needed amidst the over-the-top comedy. House sings the song beautifully and openly, and the other sisters maintain that tone when they join her.
Musically, the show excels under music director Hailey Weeks’ guidance. Because it is a variety show, the styles of the songs vary greatly. “Nunsense is Habit-Forming” is a fun example, starting as a traditional, chant-like harmonies evocative of sacred music, and then morphing into a Broadway-style number, accompanied by hilarious shimmying attempts (these are nuns after all) and line kicks. “The Drive In” is an “Andrews Sisters”-style song with a swinging feel and playful harmonies, masterfully performed by Sister Robert Anne (Mariah House), Sister Amnesia (Melissa Burke), and Sister Leo (Jennifer Chadwick). Pianist Jonathan McDonald, who remains onstage during the entire show dressed as a priest, gives a flawless performance and is the only accompaniment for the show.
The choreography by Jessica Hollingsworth is never too complex, making it believable that the nuns could have indeed come up with these dance numbers themselves. They aren’t perfect at dancing and the dancing isn’t always beautiful—but that’s kind of the point, when the whole premise of the show is that these amateurs are attempting to put on their first show. “Tackle That Temptation with a Time Step” is my favorite group dance number, as the nuns tap-dance and sing the message to stomp out temptation through tap. Sister Mary Leo, a nun who loves to dance and secretly wears tutus under her habit on occasion, has the most beautiful choreography, which is believable for the character. As Sister Leo, Jennifer Chadwick’s grace and style in movement are captivating, particularly during “Benedicite.”
Technically, the show had some minor flaws the night I attended. Melissa Burke’s mic was on the fritz, which was especially unfortunately as Burke has an impressively clear, bright, and warm singing voice. The other microphones seemed to be operating perfectly, so I’m confident this was a glitch that will be remedied by sound designer Caleb Parry for future shows. The lighting design (by Daniel Pack) was simple but appropriate, with changing colors for backgrounds and spotlights to fit the mode of the current song. And of course, the costumes designed by Alina Gatrell are exactly as expected, the black and white habits of nuns and novices, with fun small details like “street-wise” Sister Robert Anne wearing sneakers rather than the common flats worn by the rest of the nuns.
Overall, Ziegfeld’s Nunsense is a quirky, uplifting, and funny musical that the entire family can enjoy. I recommend it to any patrons looking for a frolicking night out, but I do give the warning that the show’s songs are extremely catchy, and have in fact been playing through my head all weekend. Which really isn’t such a bad thing, as I’ve got to relive the evening with hilarious tunes such as “We’ve Got to Clean Out the Freezer.” Who knew a bunch of nuns could be the source of so much entertainment.
Nunsense plays at The Ziegfeld Theater (3934 S. Washington Blvd, Ogden, UT) Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays through October 1st at 7:30 PM with a 2 PM Saturday matinee on September 24th and October 1st. Tickets are $17–20. For more information, visit http://www.TheZiegfeldTheater.com.