As a born-and-bred Catholic, Cary Hesse is delighted to be playing one of the five eccentric but lovable nuns of “Nunsense,” which opens Thursday at The Forum Theatre, because she gets to deliver a little payback to some of the nuns who shaped her own life.
“I’m not actually imitating any of them when I play Sister Robert Anne, who grew up tough in the Bronx and is pretty far out there,” said Hesse, a native Wichitan and 11th of 13 children who went all the way through parochial schools here.
“But I am drawing inspiration from several of them because they were such great mentors. Sister Mary Clare would actually jump rope with us during recess. Sister Eustasia was quick-witted and a great orator. Sister Barbara became a good friend as an adult after I got out of school,” Hesse said. “It’s good to show the humanity and humor of the women inside the habit.”
“Nunsense,” the goofy, affectionate and somewhat irreverent 1985 musical by Dan Goggin that became the second longest-running off-Broadway show and spawned six sequels from “The Second Coming” to “Nunset Boulevard,” will run through July 15 at The Forum.
This show deals with a group of nuns putting on a last-minute, slap-dash, variety show fundraiser, and director Kathryn Page Hauptman said the entire evening will be structured like a church charity event. Bingo will be offered before the show beginning at 7 p.m., and a dessert auction — angel food and devil’s food cakes, what else? — will be offered during intermission. There also will be black-and-white Nun Cookies and Nun-punch.
“You don’t have to be Catholic to fall in love with these zany nuns,” said Hauptman, who grew up Methodist in Wichita but used to ride by St. Joseph Convent every day and once informed her surprised mother that she wanted to become a nun when she grew up.
She didn’t, of course. But Hauptman said that she’s doing the next best thing by directing this show about special women in a specialized workplace with all their triumphs and frustrations — sort of “9 to 5” but with habits.
“I love the relationship among the sisters. It’s so universal. Everybody can relate them to people they know, whether a teacher or friend or role model,” she said. “I love that, even though they are saintly, they have flaws like every human. One is ambitious, one is self-centered, one is a cut-up. This show totally humanizes them. I love that it doesn’t preach about anything, but that it has honest moments about everything.”
Heading the Little Sisters of Hoboken Convent is Broadway/London star and Wichita native Karla Burns as Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina, a nun from a showbiz family who can’t stay away from the spotlight. Sarah Gale McQuery, a veteran of Music Theatre of Wichita and Crown Uptown Theatre, plays Sister Mary Hubert, the strong-willed, very opinionated second-in-command who secretly thinks she should be running the whole shebang.
Emily Pirtle, a Wichita State University theater graduate, plays sweet and somewhat lost Sister Mary Amnesia, who can’t remember anything since a crucifix fell on her head. She keeps surprising her fellow nuns — and herself — with remarkable, if random, talents like tap-dancing, puppetry and country-western music. Stacy Farthing, a student at Butler Community College, plays Sister Mary Leo, who dreams of becoming the first-ever nun ballerina and whose, well, swansong is “The Dying Nun Ballet.”
Rounding out the flock is Hesse as Sister Robert Anne, whose streetwise attitude gets her in frequent trouble with Mother Superior but whose song, “Growing Up Catholic,” is a highlight about what faith and her vows of poverty, chastity and service are all about.
Other songs include “Nunsense is Habit-Forming,” and “Holier Than Thou.” Accompanying on piano is Forum music director Tim Raymond. Set is by Craig Green with lights by Nick Smith.
This will be the fourth go-round of “Nunsense” for Burns, who met playwright Goggin back in the 1980s when she was cast as the first black Sister Robert Anne in New York City and later in Atlanta. She played Sister Mary Hubert in a subsequent production in Maine. Now, Burns is happy to be promoted to Mother Superior for her first “Nunsense” performance in her hometown.
“Mother is supposed to be in charge of all the nuns and the convent, but she is not the dignified queen that you might expect,” said Burns, who plans to draw heavily on her comic talents as well as her well-known gospel-ready voice. “Mother was once part of a circus family of tightrope walkers. She still loves the (spot)light. She talks about what it was like to be a star. I used that part of her to get into her character because I can identify with those feelings.”
But Burns said that the key to the show is not any one character but the ensemble of the five sisters, from blending their voices in five-part harmony to their comic shenanigans, including a lot of physical shtick.
“We’ve got Patty, Laverne and Maxine-type moments, we’ve got country, we’ve got tap, we’ve got puppets — we do everything but spin plates,” Burns said with a laugh. “We’re all in it together.”