Nuns on screen and stage have run the gamut over the years – from Sally Field as TV’s “Flying Nun” to the habit-wearers in Whoopi Goldberg’s tuneful “Sister Act” movies and the subsequent stage musical to the serious John Patrick Shanley drama, “Doubt,” to the comedic play, “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”
But when it comes to fun shows featuring convent residents, “Nunsense,” a musical by Dan Goggin that premiered off-Broadway in 1985 and ran for 10 years, is hard to beat. Where else can you see singing, tap dancing, kick lines, impressions, ballet, country music, gospel-type singing, a hand puppet and more – all handled by five actresses in habits?
Woodstock Musical Theatre Company’s final production (before this summer’s planned merger with TownSquare Players into a new group, Theatre 121) is a truly cute show. Trust me, “Nunsense” will win you over before the final bows whether you’re a lifelong Catholic familiar with clickers used by nuns in schools, you enjoy laughing at puns and clean jokes or you just like seeing nuns kicking up their heels, er, flat shoes.
The premise of the show is that five of the “Little Sisters of Hoboken” have come together at the local school’s auditorium to stage a fundraiser because of a tragedy and a bad decision. The tragedy occurred when the convent cook, Sister “Julia, Child of God,” served vichyssoise to all of the nuns who weren’t offsite playing bingo; the result was 52 nuns passing away from botulism (as one of our entertaining nuns wisecracks, “It was kind of like the Last Supper”).
Four dozen of the nuns were properly interred, but Mother Superior (Pamela Jones) then made the bad decision: she impulsively bought a big-screen TV for the convent. As a result, there was no money left for the remaining four burials, those bodies currently in the convent’s freezer awaiting the income from this special performance. Artistic director Barry Norton, music director Rosemarie Liotine-Aiello and choreographer Karen Smith, along with “Sister Mary Stage Manager” Kathie Comella, have done an excellent job of bringing their cast’s talents to the forefront, allowing each of them to truly shine, whether it’s Jones as the normally strait-laced Reverend Mother who comes hilariously unglued when she tests an unfamiliar substance (e.g., “Free Willy” and “Flashdance” references), Kristin Lundine (as Sister Mary Hubert) who belts out an amusing gospel-tinged song (“Holier Than Thou”) or Angelina Straus (the youngest nun, Sister Mary Leo) whose character wants to be the first nun ballerina (her interpretation of “The Dying Nun” is memorable).
Some of the biggest laughs in the show are courtesy of Elaine Cashmore as Sister Robert Anne and Emily Robles as Sister Mary Amnesia (so named because a crucifix fell on her head at some point and the character can’t remember who she really is).
Sister Robert Anne is the streetwise “understudy” who wants her chance in the spotlight and is tired of “Playing Second Fiddle,” the song where she bemoans her status. (The Mother Superior tells her to “kiss your aspirations goodbye.”) Cashmore’s impressions of film characters and others also are a highlight.
Sister Mary Amnesia gets the chance to interact with both the audience during a fun quiz (this non-Catholic reviewer even received a “prize”) and with the uncredited “Sister Mary Annette” during a song aimed at recruiting new convent residents (“So You Want to Be a Nun”).
At the opening night performance, there were a few songs – the poignant “Growing Up Catholic” at the start of the second act, for instance – where the balance between the onstage band and the singers was slightly off, making it difficult to hear all the lyrics. But part of the fun of having the instrumentalists more visible than they’d be in their normal “orchestra pit” position is seeing their attempts to stifle laughter at various points when they’re not playing. Clearly, everyone on stage is having fun here. And so was the audience.
Nunsense runs through April 14 at the Woodstock Opera House. If you’re not in the “habit” of being a theatergoer, there’s no time like the present.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals, and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “42nd Street,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016) and “Into the Woods.”