The phrase “brought back by popular demand” does not appear in promotion for Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s revival of Dan Goggin’s musical comedy Nunsense, but you can almost hear it as you go into the theater. Growing out of a line of now-extinct greeting cards, Nunsense opened off-Broadway in 1985 and ran for more than 3,500 performances. Following that the Syracuse New Times has covered 16 productions in the heavily Catholic cities of Syracuse and Auburn, not counting the many franchise spinoffs, like last winter’s Nuncrackers and the drag version, Nunsense-A-Men.
It has been absent for a while, but Merry-Go-Round’s savvy artistic director Ed Sayles and hordes of his subscribers wanted to hear the house-rocking gospel hit “Holier Than Thou” one more time. The occasion also invites choice performances from two of the company’s favorite players.
The flippant phrase “burlesque with wimples” has appeared at least once in previous New Times coverage of the show, but that doesn’t completely address its appeal. It is burlesque to the extent that it is irreverent, with spoof musical numbers interspersing with gags (many puns) and scripted ad-libs reeking with innuendo, all in a jerry-rigged plot we have nearly forgotten by show’s end. It is also vaudeville, designed to showcase star performers, which it has. Sandra Karas as Sister Mary Regina (the boss nun) and Maureen Quigley as Sister Mary Amnesia (the ditzy one with a secret) both deserve to be two of MGR’s most-beloved performers. If they decided to recite the text of the IRS 1040 form instead of Nunsense, audiences would know they were in for a good time.
Vaudeville and, to a lesser extent, burlesque both derive from the durable Italian form, commedia d’ell arte, in which players are assigned a defined character and then make all the variations they can within those limits. This window to innovation means that the three newcomers to the production are never at a disadvantage next to the veterans.
Agnes Humphrey-Copes as Sister Mary Hubert (the black nun) stands the tallest of the quintet, better enabling her to dominate the scene for her show-stopper, “Holier Than Thou.” Her well-modulated contralto can always draw sparks with the right gags. Denise Nolin delivers a perfect Brooklyn-Canarsie accent for Sister Mary Robert Anne (the tough one) as well as brassy vocalizations that recall Ethel Merman. Pretty, demure Maddy Apple implies renewal of the sisterhood with Sister Mary Leo (the ballerina novice), the youngest member. Apple, a soprano, hits the highest registers in multi-part harmony, and also serves as dance captain.
At age 27, some of Nunsense’s baggage has been thrown overboard. Mary Regina’s extravagance was shown in 1985 by the purchase of a Betamax (!); that’s a wide-screen TV now. The hand-clickers to command attention appear only once. Some others are hard to carry. The Bon Appetit soup/botulism scare has faded from public memory, and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in the state of Washington is now 31 years back. And since the French chef has been dead for eight years, it’s hard to wring laughs out of the repeated line, always with the sign of the cross, that the convent cook is Sister Julia Child of God. Hardest of all is the Andrews Sisters (flourishing in 1944) spoof, “The Drive In,” a trio. How many audiences under age 40 remember nuns in habits? Or there being lots of nuns at all?
Still, director Sayles’ instinct is fundamentally correct. Golden oldies, like Henny Youngman one-liners (several of which are in the show), can still shine.
Tall, blonde Maureen Quigley, who has played this role before, is in top form throughout, beginning in the interplay with audience members in their seats. She’s supposed to be handing out holy cards (for a deposed saint, bought at a discount on eBay) and glow-in-the-dark rosaries but never loses her manic cool if she runs into, say, a Lutheran or an atheist.
Quigley’s big first-act number, “So You Want to be a Nun,” done with a demonic hand-puppet, is a masterpiece. Along with the abrupt shifts of tone and pacing, she also has to pull off a series of operatic parodies, including the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute and “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Later in “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville” she pulls off a mean Brenda Lee.
Exuberant Sandra Karas has to pull more weight with many more lines, and manages to perk up the long series of groaners in the mock-cooking show sequence, “Cooking with the B.V.M,” which has been deadly in other productions. Her biggest number, “Turn Up the Spotlight” in the first act, nicely justifies her star billing and her dominance over the nominal standby, Denise Nolan’s Robert Anne. Defiantly her duet, “Just a Coupl’a Sisters,” a cozy girl-girl number, is with Agnes Humphrey-Copes’ Sister Hubert.
Karas’ one misstep is that her Sister Regina glows with the actress’ own ebullient personality in the first 45 minutes instead of the icy, stiff-necked repression that’s called for. We need that cold demeanor to break when Sister Mary Regina discovers the ecstasy of, um, controlled substances, although she’s still plenty funny.
The three newcomers all bring the polished professionalism audiences expect from the Merry-Go-Round company, and all shine in solos. Agnes Humphrey-Copes wows ‘em with “Holier than Thou” and also with the first act’s “Tackle That Temptation with a Time Step.” Ultra-brassy Denise Nolan plays up show biz anxiety in “Always Second Fiddle” and “I Just Want to be a Star,” and is allowed a softer side with “Growing Up Catholic,” the most pious number in the show. Lovely Maddy Apple also has a pious number, “Benedicite” in the first act, with the darkly ironic “Soup’s On” in the second. And even with all those cumbersome garments, she gracefully rises on pointe.
Behind the scenes, music director Mark Goodman pumps a heavy beat and also banters with the girls through the scrim. And scenic designer Virginia Fennessy subtly defines continuous places on the set, well lighted by Mark Romig. As the Merry-Go-Round’s season finale demonstrates, this old chestnut still has juice to give.
This production runs through Oct. 20. See Times Table for information.