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Nunsense, Muny Style

Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin

Directed by Matt Lenz

Choreographed by Teri Gibson

The Muny, St. Louis

July 1, 2013

munynunsense

The Little Sisters of Hoboken have taken the stage in St. Louis.  A low-budget off-Broadway show that turned into a franchise, Nunsense has finally arrived at the Muny in a full-scale production that, despite its sheer size, celebrates its humble origins and brings loads of laughs and a great deal of heart. It also features one of the strongest and most enthusiastic casts I have ever seen at the Muny.

For this production,supervised by creator Dan Goggin, the  show, which originally had a cast of five, has been expanded to fit the Muny stage with elements added just for the Muny, as well as a large ensemble of nuns and Catholic school kids for the dance numbers, and a few characters from the Nunsense sequels, such as Father Virgil (Lara Teeter) and Sister Mary Wilhelm (Ken Page).  Also, the  inept convent cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, has been brought into the show as an onstage character, played by St. Louis native and supporting player from NBC TV’s The Office, Phyllis Smith.  The five leading nuns are still front and center, though–Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Dee Hoty), Mistress of Novices Sister Mary Hubert (Terri White), convent driver Sister Robert Anne (Beth Leavel), novice nun and aspiring ballerina Sister Mary Leo (Sarah Meahl) and the mysterious and forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia (Tari Kelly).  The premise is the same as the original–the nuns have taken to the stage in a benefit to raise money to bury the four remaining victims of Sister Julia’s deadly vichyssoise soup, which killed 52 of the sisters in a mass bout of food poisoning. The show, which is essentially a revue with a plot, allows the various characters to tell their own stories and show off their individual talents while celebrating their lives as nuns.  It also provides an ideal showcase for the Muny’s first-rate cast.

As Reverend Mother Mary Regina, Hoty has just the right blend of authority and wackiness, with impeccable comic timing and a strong voice, and she leads a cast without a weak link. White, as  Sister Hubert, has a booming voice and great presence, and works especially well alongside Hoty in the song “Just a Coupl’a Sisters”, as well as leading the company in the powerhouse Gospel-influenced “Holier Than Thou”.  Meahl is also excellent as Sister Leo, displaying strong dance and comic abilities.  If I had to pick stand-outs from this cast, though, it would have to be Leavel as the fame-seeking Sister Robert Anne and Kelly as the endearingly befuddled Sister Amnesia.   These two in turn have two of the show’s most memorable numbers in Leavel’s “I Just Want to Be a Star” and Kelly’s “So You Want to Be a Nun”, which is simply astounding in showcasing Kelly’s ability to sing in two completely different vocal styles (operatic soprano and brassy Broadway belting) in the same song as she essentially sings a duet with herself operating the nun puppet Sister Mary Annette.  There are also great turns in the smaller roles by Muny regulars Teeter and Page, as well as a funny performance by Smith as the defensive Sister Julia.

The show emphasizes the limited budget of the nuns in recycling the sets from last week’s production of Shrek as well as making off-stage characters of the spotlight operator (Sister Mary Myopia) and the orchestra leader (Father Michael), adding to the charm of the production.  This edition also adds many nods to St. Louis, from jokes about the Muny and the free seats to including a school uniform fashion show featuring students from the area’s Catholic girls’ high schools (with some funny narration provided by Teeter and Page).  There are also some thoroughly entertaining dance numbers featuring the expanded ensemble, including the rousing Act 1 closing tap-dance extravaganza, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step”.  I would imagine that the show might even be more appealing and relatable to Catholics, especially those who attended Catholic school and were taught by nuns, but its humor is broad and inclusive enough for anyone to enjoy, and it actively avoids stereotyping nuns as overly authoritarian and serious.

I had previously mentioned that season opener Spamalot was possibly the funniest show I had ever seen at the Muny, but Nunsense is a definite contender for that honor now.  I don’t think I’ve laughed more at a single scene in a show than I did at the  Reverend Mother’s monologue at the end of Act One, and there were many other side-splitting moments as well.  I think one of the charms of this show and what makes it appealing to Catholics and non-Catholics alike  is that it encourages the audience to laugh with the nuns rather than laughing at them.  Everyone on stage seems to be having such a great time as well, and their enthusiasm is infectious.  With this production, the Muny has proven that it can take a little show and make it bigger without losing any of its charm or humor.  I would say that Nunsense, Muny Style is an unqualified success.

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