Arlington — Nunsense debuted off-Broadway in 1986 and it has become an institution. Eight spinoffs have been created and the original has been performed around the world and translated into 21 languages. As the production in Theatre Arlington demonstrates, it’s the sanctified silliness that keeps people coming out to see this perennially staged show.
The slender plot is based on the misadventures of fictional Little Sisters of Hoboken. The nuns discover that that their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, has accidentally poisoned 52 of their sisters, and they need funds to finance the burials. The sisters decide that the best way to raise the money is to put on a variety show.
What results is some divinely wacky stuff. Witty lines and well-written songs poke fun at every aspect of convent life. There are a few risqué moments, but overall it’s PG-13, suitable for kids ages 12 or up. Though they may be mystified at the sight of a nun in full habit, they certainly won’t be shocked by the proceedings. There’s even a dollop of audience participation, including the hallmark of Catholic entertainment, the Bingo game, which features a parody of the ubiquitous “Let it Go” recast as “B...i...ngo.”
While all the women in the production are strong singers and comedians, Stephanie Felton, as Sister Mary Amnesia, is one super talented sister. The musical number “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville” in Act Two is a standout, showcasing her huge belt and impeccable comic timing. She also shines in a ventriloquist number in which the dummy (which she voices) is a dirty-mouthed wisecracker, in contrast to her character’s ditzy innocence.
Judy Keith plays Mother Superior as a grumpy authority figure hiding a tender heart. When she inadvertently samples a drug found in a student’s locker, she cuts loose, revealing the young girl who was raised in a circus and harbors a secret yen for her halcyon days as a tightrope walker.
Sister Mary Hubert (La’Netia D. Taylor) is Mother Superior’s stalwart second-in-command; though she has dreams of assuming the number one spot. Sister Robert Anne (Christine Chambers), the convent’s street smart sister is also seeking the spotlight and finally gets her moment, warbling “I Just Want to Be a Star” with great gusto. And Sister Mary Leo (Cathy Pritchett) is a novice who dreams of being a ballerina and wastes no opportunity to pirouette as earnestly as she prays.
Nunsense is directed by Norman Ussery, the new Executive Director of Theatre Arlington. It’s his first time at the helm here and he does a fine job guiding the proceedings. Musical Director Rebecca Lowrey also plays piano and keyboards in the very competent onstage band and choreography is by Laura West Strawser
A few new songs, annexed to the original version, could easily have been deleted, as they don’t add anything to the already packed score. Likewise, most of the topical references are unnecessary fillips for a show that stands on its own. Nunsense is clever, silly and an almost unholy amount of fun.