News Column

New version of 'Nunsense' opens at the Muny

July 2, 2013

YellowBrix

July 02--Do you have to be Roman Catholic to enjoy "Nunsense -- Muny Style!"?

No. But it couldn't hurt.

Writer/composer Dan Goggin, whose lighthearted "Nunsense" shows have been charming audiences since 1981, devised this latest version expressly for the Muny. But maybe the big outdoor theater isn't the ideal venue for a show with its roots in a tiny New York club. The proportions just don't fit.

Director Matt Lenz has plenty of talent onstage, and lots of songs or comedy bits pay off. But overall, things never quite come together.

Is that because it's a brand-new script (which some of the actors seemed not to have mastered completely before Monday's opening night)? Or is it because the songs and comedy scenes don't so much flow as interrupt each other?

The goofiest moments are the strongest. Tari Kelly -- who starred last summer in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" at the Muny and has often starred at Stages St. Louis -- puts her beautiful singing voice to fine comedic effect when she trills through a fight with a nasty nun. That one is played by a hand puppet, and they are a sight to behold.

Later Kelly, as befuddled Sister Mary Amnesia, explains her country music dreams in a song, "I Could've Gone to Nashville," that might be the best in the show. Apparently many of Goggin's Little Sisters of Hoboken had similar dreams of their own.

Dee Hoty's Reverend Mother comes from a circus family. (She also gets accidentally high in a bit directly descended from Lucy Ricardo's adventures with Vitameatavegamin.) Tony-winner Beth Leavel's brash Sister Robert Ann longs to be a star; her big number, "Growing Up Catholic," will probably mean the most to theatergoers who share fond memories of a school like St. Claire's. Nostalgia is a big part of the appeal of this show, with its cast of sisters nothing like the modern nuns who are working here today.

But was there ever one like Sarah Meahl's Sister Mary Leo, longing to be a nun-ballerina? No matter: Meahl is hilarious in her "lyric dances," all the excuse that choreographer Teri Gibson needs for giggles. Gibson also gives us an all-nun kick line and lots of satisfying tap.

Phyllis Smith as Sister Julia, Child of God (the cook responsible for the "vichyssoise incident" behind the convent's troubles) and Terri White as soulful Sister Mary Hubert please the audience, too -- especially when White leads the big ensemble in the rousing, if not entirely coherent, "Holier Than Thou."

But as the cast lurches from song to song, bit to bit, nothing creates a solid comedy core. Some jokes are a little obscure, especially those involving Latin. Some just provincial, easy bids to please a hometown crowd.

When Sister Mary Amnesia asked, "How many of you are Catholic?" hands went up throughout the opening night audience of nearly 8,000 people. This was not a tough house. They didn't need to be pandered to with local references.

That leaves two performers who know their way around the Muny stage -- Lara Teeter as Father Virgil and Ken Page as Sister Mary Wilhelm -- working hard to keep things lively. But it's not supposed to look hard; the pleasure of watching pros lies in how they make it look easy.

Speaking of looks . . . all those black-and-white habits make this one of the visually dullest shows ever on the Muny stage. (Lucky Phyllis Smith at least gets to wear a red apron.) The set is "wrong on purpose," left over from "Shrek" because the nuns can't afford one of their own. It's not a joke that needs to last all night.

"Shrek," remember, followed "Spamalot." Those are both bright, sharp musical comedies -- just what "Nunsense" strives to be. It might have fared better if it had been scheduled between "Les Miserables" and "West Side Story."

'Nunsense -- Muny Style!'

When --8:15 p.m. through Sunday

Where --The Muny in Forest Park

How much --$12-$80, plus the free seats

More info --314-534-1111; MetroTix.com

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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