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Nunsense

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nunsense
Stephanie Wahl, Bambi Jones, Bonnie Lee, Jeanne Tinker, and Maria Montana.
Photo by Michael Feldser.

At first it seems inexplicable that the 25th-anniversary production of Nunsense, which just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre (where the original production also premiered), is somewhat less than (to borrow a lyric) habit-forming. After all, this is the show that launched a theatrical sub-industry worth more than $500 million over the last quarter-century. Could all the hype have been a put-on - what's missing? Then you realize the answer has been printed across the stage the entire time: Grease.

Okay, so that word may refer to another famous musical being produced in the gym of the school run by the Little Sisters of Hoboken, who've commandeered its stage for a one-night-only benefit concert. Yet it couldn't be more appropriate, because despite the pinpoint fidelity this production displays toward its show's history, theatrical lubrication is exactly what's missing - and what's needed most.

Whether you love or hate writer-composer-director Dan Goggin's whimsical depiction of the ultimate five-woman sister act, it's not exactly a classic. Even back in 1985, most of the jokes were old enough to have broken bread with Jesus. The songs are infectiously tuneful, but drawn from traditions (vaudeville, burlesque, gospel) that are also not newly minted. And the plot - 52 nuns died from eating tainted soup, and the survivors need to raise money to bury them - sure ain't Carousel in terms of emotional complexity.

The only thing separating the show's fans from its foes is whether they can deal with its unapologetic good humor and loving tweaking of Catholicism. Because I can manage both, I've long had a soft spot for Nunsense, and I'm not alone: Because it respects religion but not slavishly (or evangellically), it can appeal to everyone and thus has attracted sell-out crowds practically everywhere. Its loose-enough premise has left room for seven cookie-cutter sequels (not counting the officially sanctioned drag version, Nunsense A-Men!) and television filmings of several of the chapters, including the first and second starring the recently deceased Rue McClanahan.

Within that assembly-line world, you don't get better than this initial installment, which is the best at balancing its sweetness with its silliness and a pinch of salt. The Reverend Mother maintains a firm hand over her second-in-command, Sister Mary Hubert; her streetwise understudy Sister Robert Anne; novice Sister Mary Leo; and the terminally forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia, but isn't afraid to give each her moment to shine. And, with the help of old-fashioned hoofing, a Blessed Virgin Mary cooking sketch, and a few sparkling solos, each does.

But this production misses the next, and most important, connection: Because these sisters have roots in show business (the Reverend Mother was in the circus, Leo wanted to be a dancer, and so on), they must be recognizable as absolute stars from the instant they kick up their tunics. And though the performances here are professional, they're somewhat less than wholly spirited.

Bonnie Lee has mastered Reverend Mother's pervasive stuffiness, but not found the stern scintilla of fun that must always bubble beneath. Bambi Jones easily spits out Hubert's caustic one-liners, but is tentative on her songs, which should rip up the joint. (In particular, her "Holier Than Thou" sounds more like a Dinah Shore Christmas album outtake than a Southern Baptist rave-up.) As Robert Anne, Maria Montana has the Brooklyn patois down pat, but lacks both the edge and the sincere magnetism that must brand the character as a true star in the making.

Lost in the show's most difficult role is Jeanne Tinker. Sister Amnesia must sing coloratura and country, tap dance, do impressions, be a gifted ventriloquist, and break our hearts; Tinker is ingratiatingly dopey throughout, but that's about it. She withers in the spotlight whenever she assumes center stage, with Amnesia's comic centerpiece - a duet with Sister Mary Annette, a puppet - a deflating misfire. By contrast, Sister Leo must simply look cute, sing pretty, and dance a bit en pointe; Stephanie Wahl delightfully meets these requirements, and thus delivers the evening's most satisfying portrayal.

In every other respect, this is a highly faithful Nunsense, though one wishes this production had sprung for two more instruments to use the show's full orchestration; a piano and synth sound very thin.) Goggin's light, however, hasn't dimmed - his knack for staging the brisk, broad comedy remains, keeping the show itself far funnier than its performers. And those songs are still stuffed with their straightforward, appeal: "Tackle That Temptation With a Time-Step," "I Just Want to Be a Star," "I Could Have Gone to Nashville," "Turn Up the Spotlight," and most of the others radiate the pure joy of unabashed musical-theatre entertainment.

There is, alas, no substituting for charisma, and without it Nunsense fades far too quickly from color-infused to black and white. This production's monochromatic nature demonstrates this world-spanning hit's efficiency, but not the magic that made it a phenomenon. The sisters may be reverent, but they need to be just a little slick, too. In the theatre, at least, that's not a sin: that's a prerequisite.


Nunsense
Through July 18
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street (Off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge