Sometimes writers, like ships, hit the doldrums, languishing in familiar waters and not really making much headway. This was once the fate of the seemingly endless spin-offs of the original “Nunsense.” But with this, the fifth iteration of the “Nunsense” franchise, author Dan Goggin has found a fresh breeze, and his creation pushes ahead into uncharted waters with, you might say, gales of laughter.
The premise is what breathes new life into “Meshuggah-Nuns.” You, the audience, are onboard a cruise ship, attending the evening’s entertainment -– “Fiddler on the Roof.” But just before this, there was a violent storm that made the cast members terribly seasick — all but the actor playing Tevye. So the captain asks the good sisters of Hoboken, who are on an all-expenses-paid trip aboard the “Faiths of All Nations” Cruise, to put on a show with Tevye. The result is an inter-faith laugh-fest with Jew and Catholics swapping jokes about the foibles of their religions. The premise is cleverly set up at the start by your ship’s “purser,” Jonessa Brittan.
This is a vibrant musical, and Goggin’s muse must have been working overtime for it features a whopping 22 songs. Accompaniment is provided by pianist Jon Narducci, who seems to effortlessly handle a wide range of styles. Although some of the songs are quite challenging, musician and singers make it look easy. The show, which admittedly has no plot, would be entertaining no matter who was in it, but this cast really makes it spark and crackle.
Tammy Jones returns to Riverfront as Sister Mary Hubert, playing foil to Kathryn Kirk’s Rev. Mother Mary Regina. Melissa Gulden, who has been on theater hiatus far too long, gets the wise-cracking role of Sister Robert Anne and has fun with it. The new nun on the block, playing Sister Amnesia (Mary Paul) is the talented Josselyn Carter. Speaking of talent, the male Jewish counterpoint to the good Catholic sisters is Brian Bisetti (Tevye). On top of the singing, dancing and acting, Bisetti also brings his clarinet into the mix in a display of wild klezmer music. With five actors this talented and compatible, the result is greater than the sum of the parts. There is synergy. And a lot of fun.
Friday’s opening at the Riverfront Playhouse was an exciting and energetic affair and, folks, it’s only going to get better from here. Director Joe Cullis has assembled his dream cast and has made all aspects of the show fit together tightly as a jigsaw puzzle. The set is clean, bright and nautical, and gives the actors ample room to perform their schtick and the many dances. Rebekah Pearson’s choreography adds a lot to each song. She’s kept it uncomplicated with an understanding of the many genres this show parodies. The dance and song fit like hand and glove. There’s always more to costuming a “Nunsense” production than just a few nun habits. Tamara Gardner-Piette has also fabricated many props and accessories to add to the antics. Some are even scene-stealers!
Together, the cast generates sublime five-part harmonies and fast-paced comedic chops. Each actor has solo numbers, of course, and the variety and wit of the songs is a delight. The show is a veritable Mad Magazine of parodies. Everything from Shelly Winters in “The Poseidon Adventure” to a touch of “Gilligan’s Island” to the Village People (“Matzah Man”) and the many spoofs on “Fiddler,” such as” Contrition!” and “If I Were a Catholic.” There are too many inventive and laugh-out-loud moments to mention here, but one that stands out for me is “Three Shayna Maidels,” by the “St. Andrew Sisters,” who deliver an amazingly tight three-part harmony a lá the original Andrew Sisters. One more note: The final number, “Rock the Boat” could have benefited from a full band, especially a drummer, it’s just so rockin’. Despite that limitation, Tammy Jones (and cast) really bring it home for a satisfying finale.
Though the show is chock full of silly skits and clever bits, it flies by and drops anchor before you know it. It’s a fun cruise that follows the old vaudevillian maxim “Leave ’em laughing.” And leave ’em wanting more. I might just take a second helping.
“Meshuggah-Nuns,” directed by Joe Cullis, runs weekends through Oct. 18. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees (9/28, 10/5, 10/12) start at 2 p.m. sharp at Redding’s community theater, Riverfront Playhouse, 1620 E. Cypress Ave. Tickets are available at the Graphic Emporium. Call 241-4278.
Dean Williams, yet another outcast of the local newspaper, is happy to join Food For Thought in its quest to inform the community of local events. Dean is an actor and director who has been involved in community theater for more than 20 years.