CENTERVILLE — Nunsense is an irreverently funny show full of every nun joke and pun in the good book, and a few that should have stayed back at the convent. With book, music, and lyrics by Dan Goggin, this Off-Broadway darling first opened in 1985 and became the second-longest-running Off-Broadway show in history. This musical comedy has endured by virtue of being fast-paced and packed full of one-liners and an abundance of fun classic vaudeville. CenterPoint Legacy Theatre‘s production blesses the audience with an evening full of laughs.
This production is mounted in the Leishman Performance Hall, which is a black box theatre. The set is designed by Brian Hahn and is well designed with many levels for the space. The set is hilariously confusing at first glance, because it is decorated for the musical Grease. With a sign for Rydell High on the wall, Mother Superior opens the show and apologizes for the set constraints, claiming that the school will be doing the show, Vaseline, but is quickly corrected by the other nuns. The excellent part of the set is the huge screen taking up most of the main wall. On this screen, the projection designer, Josh Madsen, incorporates a cheeky Monty Python-esque multimedia element to the show that is particularly fresh and inspired.
The nuns open the show with the toe-tapping company number, “Nunsense is Habit-Forming,” which introduces all the nuns to the audience and explains how they got where they are today. Although the nuns are all dressed similarly in their traditional black and white habits, costume designer, Rachel Lindsay, gave small touches to highlight each nun’s unique personality.
The premise of the play is as simple as it is absurd. The Little Sisters of Hoboken Convent are putting on a show to raise funds. There was an “incident” where Sister Julia, Child of God, made a bad batch of vichyssoise soup that killed the 52 nuns that were in the convent that evening. The remaining sisters, saved by being gone that night to play Bingo, now must raise enough money to finish burying the nuns that were at this “last supper.”
Meredith Gibson played the leader of the nuns, Sister Mary Regina who is a formidable Reverend Mother. Gibson was very funny as she employed the power of “the clicker” upon her fellow nuns and the audience. The show had a great deal of audience participation throughout, masterfully managed by all the actresses. Gibson was particularly funny as Sister Mary Regina when the Sister discovered a student’s stash of “rush” and accidentally got high. I found Gibson a little pitchy during her solo of, “Turn Up the Spotlight,” and in her harmony during her duet with Sister Hubert in, “Just a Coupl’a Sisters,” but overall Gibson as Sister Mary Regina was an imposing nun leading her order, though possibly not always in the right direction.
Sister Mary Amnesia (played by Samantha Wursten) was the standout performer of this zany troupe. This poor young Sister was struck by a crucifix and couldn’t remember who she was anymore. Wursten played her role with a sweet and simple innocence that was given a stark contrast when she sang, “So You Want To Be a Nun,” with a puppet sidekick, Sister Mary Annette. Wursten’s heavenly operatic soprano rang out one moment and then turned to a low, coarse ventriloquism the next. This number was probably my favorite song of the evening as it was masterfully sung and executed.
Sister Mary Leo was a novice who wanted to be the first famous nun ballerina. Stephanie Bruckman who played Mary Leo had a couple of sweet ballet sections to show her character’s passion. Bruckman danced with poise and grace. The choreography of the show varied from ballet to jazz to Broadway, and I even caught a Sister doing “the floss” at one point. Choreographer Sunny Simkins really added a great deal of depth and humor through movement. Whether by twirling rosaries or by a nun kick line, the dancing in the show was well choreographed and mostly well executed. It can’t be easy to do a tour jeté or a hitch kick in a habit, but Bruckman as Mary Leo managed it until she was cut off by Sister Mary Hubert.
Sister Mary Hubert (played by Rebecca Hess) was the Mother Superior’s eager second in command, and she brought down the house with her wide vibrato when she sang the show’s closing number, the gospel shout, “Holier Than Thou.” This song was the only number where the dancing got off, but the harmonies and vocals were strong. I clapped along and relished in the spirit of this holy roller number.
Last of the five sisters, as she was supposed to be an understudy, was Sister Robert Anne played by Megan Smyth. This sister was much more streetwise than the rest. Robert Anne had a Brooklyn dialect that Smyth delivered inconsistently, but her singing voice was clear and soulful as she belted her ballad about how the church had changed (“Growing Up Catholic”).
During Robert Anne’s song, “Playing Second Fiddle,” was one of the few places that I felt Nunsense was showing its age a bit. This song talked about all the understudies who never get to go on to be stars. The screen on the wall helped greatly by showing pictures of, I’m assuming, all the actresses sung about in the song. However, none of the names I recognized. Robert Anne did a lot of impressions that landed perfectly. However, she did another dated schtick by removing her veil and donning a “Flying Nun” hat, a reference to Sally Field’s show of the same name that ended in 1970. While I got the reference, most younger people would probably not get pop culture references from 50 years ago.
While a little of the material in the book has begun to sag, it is hidden well under the wimple and veil of great comedy. Director Carol Madsen masterfully weaves all the elements of the show together. The multimedia elements are a particularly ingenious way of updating this classic. The show keeps a fast pace and had me on the edge of my seat, because I never knew when there was going to be a pop quiz by a ruler-wielding nun. Any music-loving theater patron in need of a good laugh will feel an awakening at this production. I know I found this pun-filled musical “nunderful” (sorry, it’s habit forming) and recommend it to all.