Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 23, 2011

Singing nuns don't fly

'Nunsense' cast and band try hard, but the show is stale

by Chad Jones

When a show can trace its origins to a line of greeting cards, chances are good that it may not be to everyone's taste. What's hilarious coming out of an envelope won't necessarily be gut-busting on a stage.

But you've got to hand it to Dan Goggin. His "Nunsense," which really did come from a line of greeting cards featuring a nun saying funny, nunny things, has certainly defied expectations. The original "Nunsense" opened off Broadway in 1985, and now Goggin sits atop a veritable "Nunsense" empire.

That original show, about singing nuns, dead nuns, amnesiac nuns and bawdy nuns, was followed by a sequel ("The Second Coming," naturally). Then they started coming fast and furiously as the nuns put on a jamboree, sailed on a cruise, taped a Christmas special and performed at the Hollywood Bowl (a bowling alley, not the big Bowl).

Along with the official sequels, there have also been specialty versions, including "Nunsense A-Men" in which the nuns are played by men in holy drag. Why should women have all the fun?

Now the Palo Alto Players bring us yet another spin. Their "Nunsense with a Twist" is the original show but with a hint of the specialty version. If you'd rather not know the twist, stop reading now. As the kids say, Spoiler Alert! In this production — hold on to your wimple — the Mother Superior is played by a man.

Revealing this detail isn't that big a deal because the titular twist is a non-event. Chris Blake, the actor in the habit, plays the role straight, if you will. There's no wink-wink, nudge-nudge tomfoolery. There's just Blake, along with his co-stars, trying hard to make Goggin's rather stale show funny.

And that requires a lot of work.

The Palo Alto Players previously produced "Nunsense" in 1992, and I have to take it on faith that back then there was much hilarity to be found in Goggin's premise. Things at the Mount St. Helens Convent are in quite a state. The chef, Sister Julia, Child of God, served up a fatal batch of botulism, killing 52 of the Little Sisters of Hoboken. Mother Superior raised money for the burials through a line of greeting cards, but because she opted to buy a flat-screen TV (a VCR and camcorder in the original), she can't afford to bury the four remaining "blue nuns" being stored in the convent freezer.

So the Little Sisters, taking to the stage of their school (where the 8th graders are putting on a production of "Grease"), put on a benefit to raise the last of the burial money.

That's it for plot, if you don't count the conundrum of Sister Mary Amnesia, a nun who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. If the great mystery of her identity compels you, then the show's silly denouement will be a particular thrill.

Certainly Goggin never set out to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama with "Nunsense." Clearly his goal was to have a lot of silly fun at the expense of Catholic nuns in traditional black-and-white habits. The basic presumption is that nuns are inherently funny and that everyone finds them as hilarious as Goggin apparently does. Therefore, the equation of nuns plus unusual circumstances equals comedy genius.

Or not. I don't happen to find nuns particularly entertaining or enigmatic. So the notion of watching nuns tap dancing, singing show tunes, operating nun puppets, talking like teamsters, doing interpretive ballet or delivering double-entendre jokes for two hours is actually a form of torture.

By opening night, director Mark Drumm had failed to finely tune his cast enough to land jokes with regularity. In fact, after some lame jokes, you could practically hear the chorus of crickets outside the Lucie Stern Theatre doors.

There were some big laughs on opening night, but not as many as there should have been, and though the cast and band worked hard, the comic momentum never built to the level required for sublime silliness.

Each of the nuns, however, is blessed with a moment to shine. Blake's Mother Superior is at her funniest when she accidentally huffs amyl nitrates and sings "Turn Up the Spotlight." Juanita Harris as Sister Mary Hubert gets to raise the rafters with a gospel-light number called "Holier Than Thou."

Tough talking Sister Robert Anne (Charlotte Jacobs) is supposedly the understudy but gets plenty of center-stage time, most notably in the semi-serious "Growing Up Catholic," and Sister Mary Leo (Jennifer Gregoire) gets her dance on in the "Dying Nun Ballet."

The evening's best song, "I Could've Gone to Nashville," belongs to Sister Mary Amnesia (Jennifer Martinelli), a nun with a country twang in her heart.

Though there are enjoyable elements in this production, the whole "Nunsense" premise feels stale. Perhaps the page has turned on nuns automatically being funny simply because they're the antithesis of humor.

If we look at what's hot on Broadway right now, it seems the nuns of "Sister Act" are having a hard time competing with the Mormon missionaries of that musical juggernaut known as "The Book of Mormon." Now there's a show whose ribaldry makes "Nunsense" look like, well, a 26-year-old greeting card.

What: "Nunsense with a Twist" by Dan Goggin, presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Oct. 2 with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays

Cost: Tickets are $32 general and $28 for seniors and students on Thursdays and Sundays.

Info: Go to http://paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.

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