Presented by the Headwaters Council for the
November 9, 2008
By Bernie Hupperts
“Truly the best show I’ve ever seen from the Headwaters Council for the Performing Arts.” “Outstanding—had me laughing so hard, I had to hold on to my seat.”
“What a super musical for the talents of Sally Struthers and company.” While standing in the Northland Pines High School Commons and listening to a full house audience exiting NUNSENSE on Sunday, November 9, these were a few comments I overheard. And I couldn’t agree more.
NUNSENSE, originally created, written and directed by Dan Goggin, and choreographed by Teri Gibson, brought loud applause following every comic number in the show, and also brought the SRO audience to its feet at the finale.
Set in the gymnasium of Mount St. Helen’s School Auditorium in Hoboken, New Jersey, this is a musical about a group of nuns who were, fortunately, not in the convent the night that the cook, Sister Julia (Child of God), mistakenly poisoned the soup for the nuns who were there.
Upon returning to the convent, Reverend Mother Mary Regina, played by Sally Struthers of ALL IN THE FAMILY fame, realizes that she and the remaining nuns will have to pay for interring the deceased nuns. They can afford to bury all but 4, whom they have placed in the school’s freezer. As the curtain rises, we learn the nuns of Mount St. Helen’s are holding a benefit to raise money for the remaining burials.The audience is immediately engaged, and become the unnamed characters—those who will be asked to donate for the burials.
Struthers as the Mother Superior delighted the audience throughout the show. Upon entering she spies a cut-out statue of Marilyn Monroe hanging on the wall for a student production of GREASE. She sings her way upstage until she can cover Monroe’s legs with a strip of black cloth. Struthers carries the comedy well, never more so than when, at one point she samples a concoction found in a student’s locker and flies high with the rush. From jokes about how many Catholics are in the audience, to immaculate conception to seeing her flop on the floor, while calling out “Free Willy,” Struthers commands the stage and keeps the audience on the edge of its seats.
And she can sing and dance. I won’t name the songs—their titles are not “golden oldies.” However, Struthers sings those songs with all the verve and voice one could want. Her dancing feet meanwhile move from Charleston to Buffalo shuffle and trucking with no problem.
Struthers was the star. But many of the audience will be commenting for a long time on Jeanne Tinker who played Sister Mary Amnesia, a nun who has come to the convent with no previous memories. Amnesia does a turn with a hand puppet, sliding back-and-forth between her nun’s soprano voice and her raucous puppet’s voice. To add to the delight of this character, one has only to think of her quizzical looks, double takes, and consistent character as a nun whose identity is lost until she remembers, in the middle of her star-number, “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville” who she actually is: Sister Mary Paul.
Sister Robert Anne, played by Kathryn Kendall, provided comedy through her persistent desire to be a star. She has been cast as an understudy by the Mother Superior and while Sister Robert Anne doesn’t hope for anything to go wrong, she keeps dreaming of how she could replace Sally Struthers in the show the nuns are producing to gain to move their dead sisters out of the freezer and into the ground before the health inspector arrives.
Sister Mary Hubert, played by Bambi Jones, is the Mistress of Novices and sings a great number with Struthers: “Just a Coupl’a Sisters,” In addition when she is on stage, her energy and attitude energize everyone.
Ballet entered the show also, through Sister Mary Leo. Stephanie Wahl. Imagine a habited nun dancing on point, pirouetting with a flying nun headpiece. “Soup’s On,” also known as “The Dying Nun Ballet” was her centerpiece.
A troupe of seven nuns, including those mentioned above, make two hours seem like minutes, as they advance the plot to the point where Sister Mary Amnesia remembers her true identify and Mother Superior realizes that Amnesia is the winner of the Nashville talent contest and brings her considerable winnings to the convent. This, of course, enables the nuns to bury their dead sisters and also buy the plasma television set they have all been wanting which also saves the audience from participating in a free will offering.
From the quiz given to the audience after the song that relates the convent’s history in a leper colony south of France to “Holier than Thou,” with the entire company, there wasn’t a dull moment. Whether the nuns were singing beautiful harmony as the stars of SOUND OF MUSIC or beating out a rhythm from the Rockettes, these actresses were right on and full of the excitement that lights up an audience.
The show, toured by Gurtman and Murtha Associates, may have been in Eagle River for only a night, but this HCPA sponsored event will be the standard by which many future shows will be judged.
Bernie Hupperts has spent more than 25 years directing public school and community theater drama and musicals and was recently the Drama Director at Conserve School. He is currently directing the HCPA sponsored IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: THE RADIO PLAY for the newly created Northwoods Community Theater.