The set-up: When the creator of this super phenomenal hit calls his musical a "silly little show," all bets are off.
Dan Goggins's Nunsense, thoroughly entertaining all at Texas Repertory Theatre, is a silly little show, absolutely mindless, pretty much totally forgettable once it's over - oftentimes while you're watching it -- but there's some sort of genius behind it.
How can you fault a show that has played ten solid years off-Broadway since its 1985 premiere, has never stopped being performed all over the world ever since, and has spawned - count them - six different versions: including a Jewish edition (Meshuggah-Nuns), a Las Vegas-type revue (Nunsensations), and a drag extravaganza (Nunsense A-Men!). This is theater magic at its best.
There is room for all of them, especially during the summer doldrums when regional theaters have to pay the rent. There is nothing wrong with a show whose only reason to exist is to entertain. Really, how can you go wrong with a sweet little show about nuns?
The execution: Long before Sister Act (2011) but long after Sound of Music (1959), composer/lyricist Dan Goggin, trying to break into Broadway, created a greeting card line with a tart-tongued nun dispensing wicked, sisterly wisdom. To sell the cards, he created a short skit for the actress who appeared as Mother Superior. These live promos were such a hit that Goggin turned the idea into a cabaret musical that was booked for a weekend run at the Duplex, an intimate Greenwich Village piano bar. The shtick of a wise-cracking nun was so successful that the comedy revue ran for nine months. Who knew?
With such wild and unexpected success, Goggin enlarged his concept - adding four more nuns and a slight story to pad everything out to two acts - and the rest, as they say, is history. Nunsense played 3,672 performances, putting it second only to The Fantasticks as the most-performed off-Broadway show in history. Pretty impressive for a show about nothing.
While the show isn't historic in any way, except for the fantastic amount of performances and the musical's inexorable march across the international theater scene, it is fun. That's reason enough to see it, as well as being in the presence of five superlative singing actors who put across this material like it's vintage Sondheim, or more likely, Jerry Herman, which this show resembles.
The servicable plot: five Little Sisters of Hoboken put on a charity show to raise money to bury the remaining members of the order who now reside in the convent's freezer after being unintentionally poisoned by chef Sister Julia. Each nun is personable, cute, and cuddly, as only comedy nuns can be, and each wants to be the star of the show, as only cute cuddly musical comedy nuns can be. The wonderful plus of this show is Goggin's music, which runs the gamut from rousing gospel, Sophie Tucker blues, Andrew Sisters '40s swing, Broadway pop, to Rodgers and Hammerstein sentiment. Goggin's score is a whole lot better than his lyrics, which rhyme incessantly along the lines of the "June, moon, spoon" variety. But in the company of such accommodating performers who knock themselves out to wow us, who cares?
Patti Rabaza, as warm but firm Mother Superior, belts with velvety mezzo ("Turn Up the Spotlight"); Lori Callaway, as Sister Hubert, raises the roof with Act II finale's gospel number ("Holier Than Thou"); Robin Van Zandt, as streetwise Sister Robert Anne, channels early Streisand for her turn in the spotlight ("I Just Want To Be a Star"); Connor Lyon, as Sister Mary Leo, struts her inner ballerina in choreographer Lauren Dolk's inventive routines ("Benedicite"); and Lendsey Kersey, as innocent Sister Mary Amnesia, who can't remember how or why she got to the convent, showcases her amazing vocal talents that run from operatic coloratura ("So You Want To Be a Nun") to country/western lowdown ("I Could've Gone to Nashville"). The five put on quite a show - which gets better and more pulled together after Act I's slow intros and exposition. The hoary jokes don't get funnier or better, but nuns going wacky and sort-of-sexy is pretty nigh fool-proof. The verdict: The singing is the star in this ecumenical revue, and all five performers -- neatly abetted by musical director Debbie Wiley and her orchestral sextet, and put through their nimble paces by director Dan O'Brien - sail through the varied genres like the showbiz veterans they are. Thank goodness that those sacred virtues of patience, humility, and meekness are unknown qualities upon the wicked stage.
Dan Goggin's religiously incorrect musical juggernaut rolls through July 28 at Texas Repertory Theatre Co., 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd. Purchase tickets online at texreptheatre.org or call 281-583-7573.
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