Arts & Culture

Funny, unpredictable ‘Monky Business’ shines

Let’s face it, a bunch of monks with jazz hands, vaudeville routines and a kick line that rivals The Rockettes — even though they’re shuffling around in burlap and sandals — is pretty funny stuff. That’s “Monky Business,” a new musical making its Wichita debut at Cabaret Oldtown. And this “Monky” shines.

Sure, sure, it looks at first glance like a male-oriented retread of the now-classic “Nunsense” and its many sequels, about a convent of eccentric sisters putting on a show to save their home and finding such success that they branch out to new adventures from Hollywood to Vegas.

But “Monky Business” by Hank Boland and Todd Mueller, with music and lyrics by Gregg Opelka, is a clever, irreverent, unpredictable romp that stands on its own merits. The music is upbeat and hummable with satirical swipes at styles from ragtime to country to gospel. And under direction of Cabaret Oldtown owner Christi Moore (her milestone 30th show), with loads of well-crafted choreography by Kyle Vespestad, this show answers in spades the burning question posed by the opening number: “Is it sinful to be grin-full?”

The premise is pure deja vu: Five monks at St. Bernard’s monastery put on a desperate, last-minute radiothon to raise $250,000 to keep their hallowed home from being turned into a casino — “Poker in the rectory? Heaven forbid!”

But authors Boland and Mueller, who are veterans of Chicago’s famous Second City comedy troupe, have a decidedly skewed but definitely affectionate take on Catholicism and religion. Consider, for example, character names like Brother Brooks and Brother Lee Love (say it fast), who are guided by their leader, Abbot Costello (yes, really). The monks sing about wearing sackcloth — “There’s no hair like mohair. Oddly, it’s godly” — and make it joyous.

The writers poke thoughtful, sophisticated fun but wisely know the fine line between daring and irredeemable. It will raise eyebrows but not hackles.

While the material is as unexpected as it is funny, the performances by Cabaret’s five Merry Men in Brown put the icing on the cake. Playing the good-hearted, good-natured but dim-witted Abbot Costello is longtime Cabaret Oldtown fixture Vespestad, whose wide-open face and strong singing voice allow him to trumpet every goofy glimmer of an idea that darts across his mind. He’s delightfully unsubtle.

Nick Madson, recently seen as the cuddly Cowardly Lion in Crown Uptown’s “The Wizard of Oz,” is Brother Brooks, a “pencil-necked control freak” who predicts nothing but doom and gloom unless everybody does things his way. Madson’s bustling, wonky monk suffers from escalating exasperation, and his body language revels in delicious distain.

Richard Brown II (Cabaret’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) is the naive, guileless, overtrusting Brother Lee Love, who was abandoned at the monastery as an orphan and knows no other life. Brown has a beautifully clear singing voice and a lovable, puppylike earnestness.

Maurice Sims, a Wichita East High School/Wichita State University thespian, plays Brother Forte, a mute monk with an unusual ventriloquism act — on radio — and a holier-than-thou attitude because, well, he actually is. Sims is quick on his feet, whether literally with intricate dance steps or figuratively while fending off audience hecklers who want to get into the act.

And Michael Karraker, making a welcome return to Wichita after about 18 months on national tour with “The Rat Pack Reunion” and “Hairspray,” is the devilish Brother Clarence, who tries to throw a, well, “monky” wrench into the radiothon. Karraker, memorable here in Crown Uptown’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “All Shook Up,” is fearless but precise with his physical shtick. He has a deep booming baritone that commands attention and split-second comic timing that makes everything look so effortless. When his villain is at his worst, Karraker is at his hilarious best.