Dan Goggin’s affectionately irreverent, slightly risque and ridiculously entertaining “Nunsense” is the sort of punny show that prompts critics to feel that they have license to respond in kind. Well, we’ll have nun of that here. And we’ll be nun the worse for it.
The Forum Theatre’s new revival of this 1985 charmer about five New Jersey nuns trying to raise funds by putting on a last-ditch variety show proved to be an amiable crowd-pleaser despite some opening-night sound problems that muddied lyrics and left one entire number seemingly unamplified and difficult to hear. Most (but not all) of the problems seemed taken care of by the second act.
A more noticeable concern for me is that three of the five nuns are almost identical in size and shape. Since they also wear nearly identical traditional black-and-white habits, it was often difficult to readily distinguish one from another as they frequently popped in and out from backstage. A greater variance of height or maybe age in casting the actresses would have helped.
But the cast members that director Kathryn Page Hauptman chose were more than capable of handling their eccentric characters, who variously needed to tap, do ballet and chorus line kicks (in full-length habits, yet), and even throw in some comic impressions and ventriloquism. Oh, yes, they also sang — beautifully — from rousing gospel to poignant ballads to upbeat Broadway numbers, often in close, five-part harmony.
Wichita native and Broadway veteran Karla Burns was a comic delight as Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina, who came from a circus family and, despite her newfound station and decorum, couldn’t quite give up the spotlight. Burns gave the role full-throated gusto and fearlessly threw herself into some pretty physical shtick as Mother accidentally gets high from handling drugs found in a student locker. Burns was roll-on-the-floor hilarious at times but kept her character’s underlying dignity intact.
Cary Hesse played streetwise Sister Robert Anne, who grew up tough but found fulfillment as a teacher because she could communicate with kids on their own — sometimes profane — terms. Hesse’s ballad about “Growing Up Catholic” was lovely and haunting, but I suspect she will be remembered more for her comic “nun-pressions”: reconfiguring her wimple to spoof literary or historic folks, including Attila the Nun and Twisted Sister.
Sarah Gale McQuery, a 2009 music theater grad from Wichita State University, has a powerful presence and equally powerful — and wonderfully clear — singing voice as Sister Mary Hubert, a by-the-book disciplinarian and second-in-command who secretly believes she would be a more organized Mother Superior. McQuery successfully walks that fine line of sharp one-upmanship with her boss without snotty grandstanding. A musical highlight comes when McQuery and Burns team for the rousing “Just a Coupl’a Sisters.”
Playing Sister Mary Leo, a young and naive novice fresh off the farm, is Stacy Farthing, a Wichita native finishing up her degree in vocal music at Butler Community College. Farthing often is very funny in a sweetly innocent way. But she is also poised as she flits about the stage in toe shoes because her character is determined to be the first nun prima ballerina — even though Rev. Mother won’t allow her to wear a tutu or show her legs. Her “Dying Nun Ballet” is a spoofy delight.
And Emily Pirtle, a WSU double major in theater and piano, is Sister Mary Amnesia, so called because she can’t remember who she really is since a crucifix fell on her head before she came to the convent. Pirtle is a constant surprise because her character keeps displaying unexpected and random talents, from country singing to ventriloquism with a grouchy (and hilarious) nun puppet.
Forum music director Tim Raymond plays the piano and leads a small unseen combo backstage to accompany the sisters and occasionally pop up through a window as “Father Tim” to provide a straight man for a one-liner. Craig Green designed the sprawling set to look like a gym where students are preparing to perform “Grease,” complete with a life-sized Elvis statue and soda fountain.
The fact that the Forum Theatre actually is an old church that has been given new life as a performing arts center subtly gives an authentic aura to “Nunsense” that other theaters can’t quite match. And cast members take full advantage of that by offering bingo before the show as well as a “church auction” of angel and devil’s food cupcakes at intermission.