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What the Hell: Nunsense gets the "Muny Style!" treatment



Mother Mary and the saints be praised. The Muny has finally gotten around to staging an overlooked treasure. No, not Ragtime (too complicated) or Into the Woods (too Sondheim). Not even the long-neglected Once Upon a Mattress (too Shrek-y). This week we're singing the praises of that American classic, savior of dinner theaters from Augusta to Anchorage, Nunsense.

But not just plain old, unadorned Nunsense, the ingenuously simple account of an amateur talent show sponsored by five Sisters of Hoboken. Here's the good news: Dan Goggin, the prolific Nunsense creator who apparently prays daily to St. Bungee (the patron saint of elasticity) and can churn out new Nunsense scripts faster than Jesus could produce loaves and fish, is feeding the multitudes in Forest Park — not with Nunsense or Nunsense 2 or Nunset Boulevard or any of the various incarnations — but rather with Nunsense Muny Style! a more expansive version fine-tuned to a more expansive stage.

Inspired by a line of greeting cards — and what's wrong with that? Didn't Pirates of the Caribbean begin as a theme-park ride? And look how much money it made! — the Nunsense franchise has been around for nearly three decades. Apparently, back in the early 1980s, Goggin had an epiphany when he first realized that nun rhymes with fun. From that day forward, there's been no stopping his dexterity as a lyricist. We are all the beneficiaries, because truth to tell, there's rarely been a show at the Muny of the caliber of this Nunsense.

Well, maybe High School Musical. Think of this one as Catholic High School Musical.

The plot — no, let's not go that far — the thread that holds the evening together concerns the need to raise money to bury some deceased sisters. (We'll leave the vichyssoise part of the story for you to hear firsthand, because it's so amusing.) The nuns stage a makeshift variety show, which allows Goggin the opportunity to write the various genres of theater songs we love most: soft-shoe, gospel, patter, inspirational. And if they all kinda sound the same, then you're not getting into the spirit of the evening.

One thing is indisputable: There is a prodigious amount of talent on the Muny stage, a veritable conclave of gifted Tony Award-winning and -nominated actresses. As they kick their heels and cavort through the evening, they appear to be enjoying each other's company. The volcanic Terri White spoofs "Ol' Man River," but she could probably sing the stuffing out of that Show Boat song. Clown princess Beth Leavel (the nun in the tennis shoes) can't decide whether she'd rather channel Margaret Hamilton or Martha Raye, but it matters not, because she succeeds in mining rich humor from all her material. Sarah Meahl (the dancing nun) is so sweetly sincere that she occasionally makes us think there might be a real show here. The enthusiastic Phyllis Smith (the nun in red) evokes the naive brio of a volunteer who has been brought onstage from the audience and then won't leave.

Call it style, but when a chorus line of Rockette-strutting nuns charmingly fills the wide expanse of the Muny stage, we know we're getting the Cinemascope version of Nunsense. So perhaps the most intriguing part of the evening is to watch these creative revisions play out. If a five-character show can work so effectively with a cast of sixty (and that doesn't count the St. Louis Catholic high school models), what might a little imagination do for other modest musicals? Perhaps Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt could be persuaded to write a sequel to The Fantasticks wherein Matt and Luisa get engaged, then their fathers invite the gang from Chippendales to the bridal shower. That would augment the cast in a Cinemascope and 3-D kind of way.

At age 28, Nunsense has been around long enough that playgoers should know what they're in for this week — even without the added "Style!" Those who enjoy Communion wafer-thin material (think Late Nite Catechism sans substance or soul) are already predisposed to have a ball. Those who frown on Theater Lite should hold their noses, let down their hair and take solace in the knowledge that the Muny Nunsense is being performed with more robust expertise than fluff deserves.

And here's maybe the best part of all: If loyal patrons respond favorably to this week's offering ("It's a winner!" the woman across the aisle called out at intermission), don't be surprised if next summer we see Menopause the Musical Muny Style! and then maybe The Great Trailer Park Musical Muny Style! So many possibilities.

Anybody know a good exorcist?

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