REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
The idea for Nunsense, the whimsical musical about five wacky but lovable nuns from the Little Sisters of Hoboken, came to creator Dan Goggin from an unexpected quarter. A friend had presented Goggin with a mannequin dressed as a Dominican nun in traditional habit, with the idea that it would be fun to feature a photograph of the mannequin and Goggin as part of a greeting card. The cards were a success and so, having worked in theater since 1963, Goggin decided to emulate Pygmalion by bringing the mannequin to life. The first Nunsense production opened in 1983 with a cast featuring three nuns, a priest, and a brother. The show featured sketches written by a friend, Steve Hayes, but in order to move the show to Off-Broadway, they had to have an actual “book” to replace the sketches. It was at this time that the priest and the brother became additional nuns and a story was written to tie all of Goggin’s songs together. The expanded Nunsense won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and ten years and 3,672 performances later, it ended its original run, becoming second in longevity only to The Fantasticks for an Off-Broadway show. Since then, there have been over 8,000 productions of Nunsense around the world, with the show translated into twenty languages and a half-dozen sequels following in its wake. What makes Nunsense so universally loved? Simple. It’s funny, the songs are cute and singable, and the good feelings inherent in the show’s believable characters are infectious.
Which brings us to Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s current production of the show. As we’ve shown here, a great show can be fatally damaged by faulty casting, but in CSP’s case, producer Kaelia Franklin and director Dean Johnson have chosen an ideally suited cast. Goggin endowed each nun with a specific and endearing personality and this quintet captures each perfectly – Broadway quality, in fact.
Those unfamiliar with the show will wonder if they had wandered into the wrong theater because what they find on the stage as they walk in is a high school gymnasium decorated for a performance of Grease. This is all part of the show, of course, and soon, the nuns make their entrances and explain the silly premise, which involves them trying to raise money to bury four remaining nuns from a toll of fifty-two who have succumbed to tainted vichyssoise, concocted by the convent’s chef, Sister Julia, Child of God (a name that brings a laugh every time it is mentioned). Despite being written in the 1980s, Nunsense’s goofiness holds up pretty well, with pop culture references to Star Wars, The Flying Nun, and The Sound of Music still relevant to today’s audiences.
Leading the way is character actress Sharon Gibson, who is coming off a superb run as Golde in the ARTS production of Fiddler on the Roof. Gibson gives what is probably the best performance of her career as Sister Mary Regina, the Mother Superior of the Little Sisters of Hoboken. The role recommends use of an Irish accent and Gibson nails this aspect with a perfectly convincing but not overwhelming brogue. Gibson’s enthusiasm for her character is infectious, and in her scene where she gets high after taking a whiff of a mysterious liquid found in the girls’ bathroom, she is an absolute, falling-down funny riot.
Nunsense also features a triple-threat of powerhouse singers in the roles of Sisters Mary Hubert (Aileen-Marie Scott), Robert Anne (Mary Zastrow), and Mary Amnesia (Dawn Notagiacomo). Scott’s wide vibrato is perfect for Mary Hubert, the Mother Superior’s eager adjutant, and she gets the house rocking when she sings the show’s closer, the gospel shout “Holier Than Thou.”
As the streetwise Robert Anne, Mary Zastrow has to channel her tough upbringing on the streets of Stockton, California as well as adopt a Brooklyn accent, but for Zastrow, this is no problem. A brilliant comedic actress with a splendid voice, Zastrow (who accents her character by being the only nun to wear tennis shoes) covers all the bases with her three solos – the affecting “Playing Second Fiddle,” the showbizzy vaudeville number, “I Just Want to Be a Star,” and her character-baring Act II opener, “Growing Up Catholic.” With her ability to play strong, comedy roles like this, it would not surprise us to see Zastrow some day starring as Princess Fred in Once Upon a Mattress or Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
Sister Mary Amnesia is required to deliver a few coloratura moments in her singing and for that, Dawn Notagiacomo is ideally suited, especially in one of her featured numbers, “So You Want to Be a Nun?” We’ve sung Dawn’s vocal praises before in her appearances in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas as well as her recent stint as Nancy in High Street Art Center’s Oliver!, but she is especially good in this role, which communicates Mary Amnesia’s inherent sweetness.
Like Notagiacomo, CSP newcomer Angelica Smith also has Gilbert & Sullivan roles on her resumé and is excellent as Sister Mary Leo, the novice nun who aspires to be a ballerina. Smith holds up her end vocally and does a nice job on her showpiece, “Benedicite.”
All five girls work well with the pre-recorded tracks; this is one show where tracks don’t make that much of a difference. In fact, the girls are so good, you don’t realize the music has been pre-recorded. On opening night, when one of the tracks started playing before it was supposed to (as will happen on opening nights), Scott, as Mary Hubert, stopped what she was doing and forcefully declared, “I’m going to sing now,” and launched into her song, all perfectly in character.
Nunsense is a deceptively difficult show. As the saying goes, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,” and this bunch really makes the comedy appear easy. The sisters waste no time in setting the light mood, schmoozing with the audience by greeting them as they proceed to their seats, before the show even has started. It is clear that these fine performers not only get their characters, but they get along famously with each other as well. The love they have for one another is apparent from the start, and you will love them as well in this “nunderful” production.
Nunsense plays through May 8 at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.