Garrett joins the show as something of a "special guest" nun. She plays a role specifically written by original Nunsense creator Dan Goggin just for her: Sister Julia, Child of God. Sister Julia, as fans of the original show will recall, had an extremely unfortunate cooking mishap which ultimately resulted in the Little Sisters of Hoboken needing funds in a hurry, thus setting in motion the benefit show that is the premise of Nunsense. While Sister Julia was never seen on stage in the original production, she now has a solo number and a comedy bit, and also briefly joins the rest of the cast in a few ensemble pieces. Garrett attacks the part with relish. She doesn't have much gusto in her singing voice, so she uses a fairly light touch, but her comic timing is impeccable and she scores the biggest laugh in the show.
Meriwether takes on the role of Sister Robert Anne, a streetwise nun originally from Brooklyn. Meriwether clearly enjoys playing the only nun who can hotwire a car, and she gives Robert Anne a delightful rebellious streak. The Reverend Mother has decided to cast Robert Anne in the role of the understudy in their benefit production, a position that does not please Robert Anne one bit as she knows she has star quality if they'll only give her a chance. Unfortunately, Meriwether doesn't give a particularly rousing performance when the Reverend Mother finally gives her a turn in the spotlight - she is much more sparkling with Robert Anne's fast-talking understudy lament, "Playing Second Fiddle," and is genuinely touching in "Growing up Catholic," a bittersweet nostalgic look at the way the Church used to be.
While Nunsense is never particularly serious about its fourth wall, this production inserts several references to prior credits of Garrett and Meriwether, and they all fall horribly flat. The worst offender is probably when another nun mentions "Laverne & Shirley" to Sister Julia when there is absolutely no reason for her to do so. Even Meriwether's quick nod to Catwoman, which is done within the context of a comedy bit, earns only a very small laugh. Goggin wrote new material for this production, including Sister Julia's new song. But the little references to his leading ladies' credits are not a good fit with his otherwise witty script.
A more serious problem with this production, though, is that there isn't enough vocal power to sell all the songs. With the exception of Rhonda Stovey (the one non-Equity member of the production), nobody has a really solid singing voice. When Stovey finally lets loose with a little volume and energy in the show's raucous finale, it only serves to emphasize what was lacking in the rest of the show. One number, intended to be in the style of the Andrews Sisters, is so slow and lacking in harmony it is painful to watch. While you might not expect quality singing if you'd actually attended a benefit show performed by nuns, you can certainly expect it when attending a musical, and it is here that Theatre West's Nunsense lets you down. At the same time, though, there's still a warmth to it - again, much like if it were an actual convent benefit - and you can't help but leave with a light smile playing on your face. It's just the smile that comes from knowing Garrett can still make you laugh, and Meriwether can still charm you - not the smile that comes from having been solidly entertained for two and a half hours.
Nunsense runs through March 6, 2005 at Theatre West. For information, see www.theatrewest.org.
Theatre West & John Gallogly present Nunsense. Written and Directed by Dan Goggin. Choreographer Deborah Del Mastro; Production Stage Manager Dale Alan Cooke; Lighting Design Yancey Dunham; Set Design Joseph M. Altadonna & Daniel Keough; Costume Design Joannie Coyote; Assistant Director Dianne Travis; Publicist Philip Sokoloff; Graphic Design Doug Haverty; House Manager Helen Murray.
Photo: Dennis J. Kent