The Greenbelt Arts Center has deviated from its usual theatrical lineup of straight dramas and comedies for its first show of the new year, Dan Goggins's comic musical "Nunsense." Although it skimps on production values, the show does provide a framework for a group of energetic performers to keep audiences engaged and laughing.
"Nunsense" is a flimsy bit of fun that depends largely on the talents and charisma of its cast to succeed. There's not much of a plot, the music is mostly forgettable and the jokes are corny. It's in the form of a "talent show" being staged by five of the surviving members of the Little Sisters of Hoboken, a Catholic religious order that has lost most of its sisters to a botulism-laden batch of vichyssoise prepared by their chef, Sister Julia-Child of God. Unable to pay to bury all of the deceased, and with several of them ("blue nuns") inconveniently stored in the convent freezer, the nuns take to the stage of Mount Saint Helen's parochial school to raise funds. And more.
"Though we're on our way to heaven, we're here to raise some hell," they sing in their introductory song, doing their best imitation of a chorus line, black-and-white habits and rosaries flying.
The show repeatedly relies on the comic shock value of seeing nuns do non-nunlike things, as well as a lot of puns and double entendres involving their innocent use of such phrases as "missionary position." But the material is not vulgar and doesn't lacerate the Catholic Church, mildly lampooning only benign stereotypes. (When the original national tour came to Ford's Theatre in the mid-1980s, several rows were filled by real-life nuns opening night; most laughed heartily.)
"Nunsense" removes the barrier between performers and audience, as cast members interact with theatergoers before and during the show. This resulted in an audience member generating the biggest laugh opening night. Sister Mary Amnesia (Dory Cunningham) was working the gallery, presenting little gifts that included a card inscribed, "I'm Catholic. In case of emergency, call a priest." Her target noted he is Jewish, prompting Cunningham to ask, "And whom do you call?" "A lawyer," he shot back, bringing down the house.
Under Jeffrey Lesniak's fast-paced direction, the Little Sisters exuberantly sing and dance their way through songs that are mostly fluff. They perform in groups and solo, each one getting to display her unique talent. There's not much of a set, but one is not really missed. There's not much of a band, either, just two keyboards and drums, conducted by Lesniak. A fuller orchestra is missed.
All five actors have their moments in the spotlight, but two performers stand out.
As daffy Sister Mary Amnesia, Cunningham cheerfully chirps her way through the proceedings, delighting everyone with considerable stage presence and displaying both a radiant operatic soprano and a gravelly bass in the tour-de-force song, "So You Want to Be a Nun," during which she brandishes an irreverent hand puppet. Sister Mary Amnesia is the sweetest character, her memory lost after supposedly being clobbered by a crucifix.
Amelia Montiero plays young Sister Robert Anne, who chafes under the Mother Superior's dictum that she remain only an understudy. The fresh-faced Montiero is quite engaging as her character worms her way into the show, performing the solo "I Just Want to Be a Star" and displaying impressive vocal versatility in "Playing Second Fiddle."
Other highlights include Cunningham, Verlene Biddings Goho, Barbara Ying and Laura Mastroianni joining forces for the lovely, lilting "Lilacs Bring Back Memories" and Goho leading the cast in a rousing, gospel-tinged "Holier Than Thou" near show's end.
There's humanity under those habits, and "Nunsense" brings it out.
"Nunsense" will be performed through Feb. 1 at the Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway in Greenbelt. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Jan. 19 and 26. For tickets and information, call 301-441-8770.