Nunsense, by Dan Goggin. Directed by Marc De La Concha. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
L to R:…kneeling is Courtney Sielber, Amy Fiebke and Liane Zielenski, standing is Connor Milam and Katie Luke; photo: Allen Phelps
"Tomorrow the world could be cheering the first nun ballerina."
Growing up I had a fear of nuns. "Let one catch you," my Polish grandmother liked to say, "and she will baptize you and you won't go to Jewish heaven." I feared nuns. At age 39 I befriended one nun who liked to come to New York City and stay with us. I was down with the flu the first time she visited and she kept making clicking noises which brought back my grandmother's warning and I was afraid. When it turned out she had no interest in baptizing me we became friends. A few years later my friend Semina DeLaurentiis went into an off-Broadway show about nuns, partially based on her own well-developed night-club nun character, a woman with amnesia who liked to travel, and dance, in roller skates. The show was "Nunsense" and thank goodness I had gotten over my earlier fears. The show was hilarious. Semina was fabulous and all was right with God and the world.
Since then I have seen innumerable productions of "Nunsense" and generally enjoyed them all. The most recent edition is on stage now at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY for two weeks. A young company take on the roles and deliver creditable performances although the direction by regional newcomer Marc De La Concha leaves a bit to be desired. The plot is this: Five nuns are putting on a show to raise money to bury their dead: the final four who were poisoned by their cook, accidentally, out of 56 dead nuns (most buried and these four in the kitchen freezer). These five sing, dance, tell jokes, do impressions and basically embarrass themselves with their cloying attitudes and dismaying abilities. But, thankfully, they are still funny after all these years.
They are, in order of ranked status: Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Regina, played by Amy Fiebke; Sister Mary Hubert played by Connor Wayne Milam; Sister Mary Leo played by Katie Luke; Sister Mary Amnesia played by Liane Zielinski; Sister Robert Anne played by Courtney Silber. Fiebke, as always here and in other places, is very funny indeed. When she sings "Turn Up the Spotlight" she is clearly a woman with a need, one that gets satisfied in a hilarious scene at the end of Act One where she discovers the sensual powers of the product RUSH. She is neither the sternest Mary Regina I have seen nor is she the most lax. She is a middle of the road, impulse to speed controlled Mother Superior.
Liane Zielinske as Sister Mary Amnesia; photo: Allen Phelps
Milam sings the final number "Holier Than Thou" with gusto and delivers the rest of her role with that same spirit. I have grown so accustomed to a black actress in this role that it did take me a moment or two to get this choice into my spirit and my soul.
Courtney Silber is not the butchest nun in the bunch, although she is still moreso than any other character. I liked Silber's delivery of the role but it was nothing like expected from long experience. Silber's Robert Anne is a typically crude woman but in this case more subdued-crude.
Katie Luke impresses with her Mary Leo who is rational, even when she is en pointe. In spite of outre goals she is the one who maintains a bit of order and a bit of mischief at the same time. Luke plays the aspects of Leo's character perfectly and is a joy to watch do it.
But it is my friend Semina's role, Mary Amnesia, that still steals the show away from the others. Liane Zielinski is pretty terrific in the role. She is doing an imitation of Semina - everyone always does - and doing it nicely. Her transition from one phase of this person's life to another in the song "I Could've Gone to Nashville" was delightful.
So, with this much to the good why isn't this my favorite production? There are slow spots, places where the women don't work well together, places where the show just pales. It is likely the director who is to blame here. Broad comedy on a broad subject sometimes needs to be reigned and sometimes doesn't. I felt that those two options played in reverse sometimes and where broad should be broad it was kept reigned in and vice versa. The choices for these women weren't always what I think they ought to be. I think this approach accidentally hurst the final product.
Abe Phelps set design is exactly right for the show. Music Director Alan Schlichting and his trio give the show pep, musical perfection and an a-capella sound at times that is just right. Allen E. Phelps lights the show well.
But the final product lacks the shimmer of laughter that should carry it to the top, and not over the top. In this instance the Theater Barn has offered a show that amuses rather than outrageously entertains. Amusement is not a bad thing, but for a show like this one entertainment isn't enough. We want to be tickled, tormented with laughter, enthralled. And if you fear nuns the way I did, this show may help you through your fear, but it won't cure it.
Nunsense plays at The Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through August 6. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line to www.theaterbarn.com.