Sometime in 1981, Dan Goggin, a devout Catholic and ex-seminarian, asked a friend of his—Marylin Farina, a dental assistant from Teaneck, N.J., at the time—to pose for him. Fully dressed as a nun, that is, for a line of greeting cards themed after a nun with a mouth tart with one-liners. The greeting cards were such a success that Goggin spawned off t-shirts, sweatshirts and notepads from the gig. Then Goggin turned it into a little musical number called “The Nunsense Stoy” and staged it in a Greenwich Village cabaret. The production was supposed to last four days. It’s now into its fourth decade as “Nunsense,” the full-bodied musical. It’s still filling theaters as it surely will the Flagler Playhouse: it opened there last Friday and will run through February 3. If you’re the product of a Catholic school, set your PTSD aside for the evening: “Nunsense” is good for lots of chuckles and a few big laughs in between.
The plot-within-a-plot is as improbable as its Goggin-and-Teaneck-inspired genesis. “Nunsense” is set in Mount St. Helen’s School in Hoboken, N.J., a place run by the Little Sisters of Hoboken whose order had once run a leper colony in a much more interesting place. They were supposed to reestablish their order in Cleveland. They ended up getting off the plane in Newark instead (don’t ask). Maybe Hoboken beckoned. The story begins when 19 of the Little Sisters return from bingo to discover 52 fellow-nuns face down in their bowls, dead from botulism. They’d been accidentally poisoned by Sister Julia’s (Child of God) vichyssoise soup. (Forgive them father, for they know not what they pun.)
The sisters manage to afford the cost of burying 48 of the nuns by, naturally, launching a successful greeting card line. Unfortunately, ex-tightrope walker and Reverend Mother Regina, thinking there’s plenty more money to go around, buys a Blu-Ray player and exhausts the burial fund. Problem: how to inter the four remaining nuns waiting cryogenically in a freezer? Another divine inspiration: the sisters throw a talent show in the school’s auditorium, which is already set up for the eighth grade production of “Grease” and cannot be altered.
Enter the cast directed by Judi Ernst and choreographed by Wendi Ellis: Kristina Blanchek as Sister Mary Hubert , the second-in-command; Leslie Van Brink as the street-smart and ambitious nun from Brooklyn, Sister Robert Anne (misspelled in the program); Ashley King as ballet-dancing novice, Sister Mary Leo; and Sarah Rogers as the delightfully wacky Sister Mary Amnesia, who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. Yes, all of the nuns are named Mary. Leading the pack, literally, is Adam Mayo as ex-tightrope walker and Reverend Mother Regina. If Adam sounds like a man’s name, it’s because he is.
First instinct is to think the program designer made a faux pas by putting Mayo’s picture next to the Reverend Mother’s character description. But there’s no mistake. The second instinct is to doubt that a man can play the part. Mayo—a prolific actor, Playhouse regular and former president of First Coast Opera (He was last on the Playhouse stage as Bob Cratchet in “A Christmas Carol” a few weeks ago)—is a standout in the musical comedy, portraying a pitch-perfect Reverend Mother Regina with dry humor and slapstick hilarity. He generates the biggest laughs of the show when the reverend mother accidentally gets high after inhaling a mysterious bottled drug called Rush. Mayo’s Sister Regina giggles, stumbles over words, falls down and gets stuck between set bar stools, slips back onto the stool and imitates Shelley Winters swimming in “The Poseidon Adventure,” even rolls onto the stage and calls for the audience to “Free Willy!” It’s over just when it starts to become tedious. Mayo’s sex dissolves perfectly in his nun’s character—as all nuns’ sex dissolve anyway in their overabundance of fabric. Of course it doesn’t hurt that his legs are covered by stockings and any potential 5 o’clock shadow on his chin with said fabric.
Another show highlight was Flagler College theatre arts alum and former New York State Theatre Institute intern Sarah Rogers as Sister Mary Amnesia. Reminiscent of popular stand-up comedian Wendy Liebman with twice the stage presence and a hell of a voice, Rogers steals the spotlight with a sometimes off-color duet with puppet, Sister Mary Annette, on the pros (and cons) of being a nun.
Also a favorite: the scene where the nuns discuss recipes from a cookbook written by inadvertent murderer Sister Julia. As they page through Barbecued Ribs St. Joan, Mortally Sinful Devil’s Food Cake and “easy” Mary Magdalene Tarts, the nuns realize Sister Julia has included the deadly recipe for her killer vichyssoise. It is instantly pulled off of the fundraising sale list, of course.
While not all of the five actresses have the strongest singing voices—Ashley King hits the high notes with an impressive soprano while Kristina Blanchek can be (as American Idol’s Randy Jackson would put it) pitchy—they’re all extremely entertaining in their portrayal of the nuns. Their energy and comedic timing compensate generously for the lack of vocal quality. Blanchek has great comic instincts and Van Brink’s portrayal of Sister Robert Ann is charming and memorable.
“Nunsense” is not a sit-and-giggle show. Featuring comical nun-awkward choreography and tap and ballet dancing onstage, the cast banters with the audience before the show and elicits good-humored audience participation with a quiz, questions-and-answers, leading them in cheers, whistling and other comic surprises throughout. The ad-libbed cast responses to audience members are a treat. It’s not necessary to be Catholic to enjoy “Nunsense,” but having attended the inherent gag known as Catholic school does add to the humor (from Reverend Mother Regina’s clapper to the nuns’ faux serious performance of the Veni Creator) and appreciation of it. Expect a just over two-hour spirited revue (with a 15-minute intermission) full of dim-wattage puns, slapstick humor, a penguin joke (obvious yet unavoidable) and comedy that can occasionally border on bad taste if Catholic sensibilities or pre-Vatican II nostalgia get in the way.
Dan Coggin’s “Nunsense” won four Outer Critics Circle awards, including Best Off-Broadway Musical, has been adapted for television, translated into more than 20 languages and performed in thousands of theaters all over the world. Flagler Playhouse is continuing the legacy with ecumenical grace.