What do you get when you combin botulism, tap dance, and singing nuns? One hell of a good time, or also known as “NunSense the Musical.” The musical written by Dan Goggin is currently being performed at The City Theatre here in Austin. I have been a fan of the Dan Goggin series featuring, a familiar cast of eclectic and often times unusual nuns, for a long time. The storyline of Nunsense is somewhat far fetched, but that is what makes it fun. The “Little Sisters of Hoboken,” a quiet former leper colony convent, needs to raise money to bury 4 nuns who are currently stored in the convent freezer. These 4 nuns are the remaining 4 of 52 who died due to a bad case of botulism. So the sisters are putting on a talent show to raise the money needed. This sets the show in motion, and it is a show like nothing else. As The Mother Superior comes on stage to get the other 4 sisters singing “Nunsense is Habit Forming” the show rattles to a start and takes off. I have seen this musical about 5 times in the past few years, and I love it, however it takes a very skilled and united cast to pull it off. The cast of the city theatre production is certainly unified however there are moments of weakness.
Leading this talent extravaganza is not only the convent’s Mother Superior, but the work of Director James Lindsay, who has a special knack for these comic shows with a bit of schtick. He and his choreographer partner Laura Lund have done a great job directing and choreographing a show that will delight, and entertain all night long. Lindsey has directed a number of shows in Austin that are of a similar vein and each time he has given the audience a little bit of gold. With the help of Lund they are a match made in heaven. Their last collaboration “Pageant” also at City Theatre garnered them the Central Texas Excellence In Theatre Awards for “Best Direction of a Musical,” “Best Choreography,” and “Best Production of a Musical!” Only time will tell what this production will bring.
In a show like this, which is a show within a show. there is always a bit of extra work an
actor must keep the persona of the actor alive while performing in a separate story. In this case a simple talent show put on by some nuns. The show revolves around the performance of the all powerful, and controlling Mother Superior played by B.J. Ortwein. The problem with this role is it is a hard character to create, there has to be a dominance and yet still a soft side. She has to be commanding, yet nurturing. Ortwein certainly has the nurturing side down she is sweet and kind, yet she lacks the dominance with the other sisters to live up to the dialogue of the show, when they make fun of her little sayings and ways of controlling the order. Ortwein also seems in moments to not have a solid grasp of her lines and choreography. She does an admirable job and has some lovely moments, giving a good but not a great performance. Assisting the Mother Superior is Sister Mary Hubert ,the “Mistress of the Novices,” played in this production by Samantha Watson. Mrs. Watson does a wonderful job creating a character that is always trying to get a step higher on the ladder, to rise above to Mother Superior! Watson in many shows I have seen her in has often in my opinion been miscast, not giving her the appropriate room to shine and make her talents fully known. This production however, is an exception to that comment Watson was perfectly cast and she
takes full advantage of her moment in the spotlight. Often winning the hearts of the audience even when she is not the focus of the scene. This is a show she is born to be a part of, she fully understands who her character is and makes her come to life fully! But, to be fair to the rest of the cast there are a few moments of vocal weakness. This could have been due to the fact that I saw the show on opening night and she was taxed from a week of dress and tech rehearsals. Either way, her big number at the end “Holier Than Thou” could have been bigger, if she sang it a bit more in her vocal range. Right behind Sister Mary Hubert is the prankster of the convent Sister Robert Anne, brought to life by Lariena Armstrong. Armstrong is a great fit for this role she brings out a lovely rugged brooklyn girl turned nun. Armstrong like Watson, takes her moments to shine and does a fine job. When she finally gets her moment in the spotlight you can see she reveled in it. I have seen different versions of this character and while Armstrong’s approach was different from those I have seen before, I still liked it. In the end I found I was rooting for Sister Robert Anne! Speaking of different, one of the funniest and more adorable moments of this show in any production, is the “ballet” performed by Sister Mary Leo the “novice” of the order. In the City Theatre production, Sister Mary Leo played by Stefanie Salyers actually dances ballet, like real ballet on pointe with exquisite technique. I was most impressed with this young lady who has a lovely voice and the face of angel. She brings a sweet and charming performance to this often forgotten character. However, there is one aspect of this cast that steals the show for me, Jennifer Bateman in the role of Sister Amnesia. Bateman takes full command of the stage. and hands the audience exactly what they want! Bateman is a master of her craft, creating a character that is so sweet, and yet so clueless and confused you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The entire audience was in awe of her comic timing and spot on performance, plus she is an amazing puppeteer!
The set by Andy Berkovsky and John Kolkhorst, with assistance by Matthew Villarreal, is well done and the costumes, well they are “Habit-Forming” and look nice. Our habit tips to Rosalie Oliveri for her work there. There were a few funny looking veils but that is another story. The music directed and performed by Austin Kimble with assistance by Chris Lippke on percussion is done well, and the vocal work in most places is strong. However in the performance I saw there were many moments when the music overpowered the singers, even when they were using microphones. I am sure that this was resolved since then.
All in all this show is topnotch, I giggled, then I laughed, then I all out gufalled! Nunsense is righteous good fun! Make plans to visit the “Little Sisters of Hoboken” before they are gone! Nunsense runs through May 28. For more information and tickets log on to http://www.citytheatreaustin.org/