Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Theater review: Firehouse Theatre’s production of Nunsense was low-energy, mangled nonsense
It's a mess, but the audience seemed OK with it.
FARMERS BRANCH The smash 1985 Off-Broadway musical Nunsense has become a staple of American musical theatre. This delightfully silly musical is about the Little Sisters of Hoboken doing a fundraiser to bury the remaining four sisters who have been put into a deep freezer after a disastrous vichyssoise poisoned 52 in the convent.
Nuns singing, dancing, and accidentally using double entendres and innuendos is what has made this musical beloved by audiences for so many years. It’s a show within a show. As the mother superior explains the motive for the fundraiser to the audience, we discover the relationships, dreams, aspirations, and tensions that abound in the nunnery. We meet the cast of five nuns, who come from all walks of life, as they sing, dance, and tell jokes for our amusement.
The Firehouse Theatre labels itself as a “family-friendly community theatre at its best!” and for their production of the musical, they toned down some of the more off-color jokes. Keep in mind that Nunsense is already very much a family-friendly musical, so to do the slight edits to “tone down” the show struck me as overkill. While some jokes are intentionally groan-inducing, others are ever so slightly risqué because of the double meaning. There is only one section of the musical that strays into PG-13 adult humor but you’d have to be in on the joke to fully understand it. The majority of audience won’t get it but my friend and I did and guffawed.
Besides editing from the original, they updated to the script to keep it current. They were able to add a couple of lines referencing the new Pope and those jokes landed beautifully.
The Firehouse Theatre is currently housed at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Farmer’s Branch. Since the show is supposed to be a rather “impromptu show” in a school auditorium, the location and the lack of a real stage actually worked for this musical. The sisters are performing on the set of the musical Grease, and the recreation of the set by Jason Leyva was very well done. He was also responsible for the sound design. Being a non-traditional theatrical space, the acoustics would naturally be terrible but Mr. Leyva overcame the inherent difficulties of the location and every word spoken and sung came through very clearly via the amplification.
Unfortunately, the stage area is only a couple of feet off the ground and the seating can’t be raked due to the low ceilings, so at five rows back there were visibility issues, both in being able to fully see the performers and the reflection of the lights off the wall- mounted pay phone which reflected back into the eyes of our section of the audience. I had to watch the musical without seeing center stage due to the problem created by the lighting designer. Only when one of the characters was positioned so as to block the reflected light could I get a view of most of the stage.
There was a tremendous lack of energy from the actors throughout the entire first act and a part of the second. The only actor who hit the stage in full character, fully ready to perform, and maintained it throughout the show was Stephanie Felton as Sister Robert Anne.
Fortunately, in Act Two, everyone kicked into high gear, their characters became defined and it was at this point that it became evident how good the show could have been. By closing the show so strongly, they were able to save the show instead of letting it sink completely.
Vicki Dean as Sister Mary Hubert gets to lead the closing number of the show. She had a sensational voice. I enjoyed every one of her songs, especially the rousing finale.
LisaAnne Haram portrays the Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. While she looked the part and had a very pleasant singing voice, her interpretation of the character didn’t quite gel with the lines given. The character is in charge of the entire production and serves as the host but Haram played her as someone who was timid and nervous. This said, when she did finally get “high” on poppers, her giddiness was the comic highlight of the evening.
Sister Mary Amnesia is probably the hardest character to portray. What makes this character so lovable is that she’s excited to be in the show though she can’t quite always remember why she’s in it. Susan Metzger’s underplayed portrayal didn’t serve the comedic requirements of this character. When this nun finally recovers her memory it’s during her solo, “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” And though it is intended to be another comedic and over-the-top song, Metzger’s subtle approach made this song take on a more heartfelt weight and it worked.
Sister Mary Leo was portrayed by Staci Cook-Ingram. The character wants to be a world-famous dancing nun. This role usually requires an actor that is a triple threat, which is a rarity. Unfortunately for Cook-Ingram, she wasn’t as strong a singer or as strong a dancer to pull it off. It’s not that she couldn’t dance, for it was evident that she could, but it wasn’t as resplendent as it should have been. I give Ms. Cook-Ingram credit for her valiant effort and doing her best, given the constraints put upon her.
The choreography by Jennifer Leyva was mostly on target, cute, and all at the level of the performers’ ability. However, there were several choreographic sequences taken from Felton Smith’s choreography, who did the musical staging for the television and subsequent DVD of the show, and the program did not credit him.
Phyllis Haute should be commended for her costume design. The requirements are simple for this show, but they must be executed well, and Ms. Haute rose to the occasion.
John Wilkerson’s direction was quite good, given the constraints of the space. Because there were no wings, the performers had to leave the performance hall via doorways yards away from the stage. Mr. Wilkerson took what would have been a hindrance and turned it into an advantage, creating some clever entrances and exits that were amusing. His stage compositions were quite strong and he maximized physical humor. The timing, though, was off in line delivery with line wobbles that probably came from opening night jitters. His musical direction wasn’t as effective. Because there’s a vaudevillian aspect to this show, each song has its own distinct flavor.
Though the two band members played with gusto, the vocal styling and differentiation between each song wasn’t as defined as it should have been.
I would normally never review the program of a show. When one is given to the audience, it serves to inform the patron as to who is in the show, what role they portray, what musical numbers they perform in, and the order of songs. The program also serves as a memento. It is part of the experience of a show. Typos or small errors occur from time to time and they aren’t worth mentioning. But in this case, the program handed out was an exasperating mess. According to the program an actress never performs a musical number, songs are placed in the wrong acts, and a character billed as onstage has no actress associated with it. I had to go online to research and untangle the confusion created by the program. It’s a disservice to the audience and the actors performing.
For all the shortcomings of this production of Nunsense, Dan Goggin, the creator of this musical, is a genius. His plot, dialogue, and music are so good it’s nearly impossible to not enjoy Nunsense. While The Firehouse Theatre’s production is lacking in some areas, it’s the audience which determines if a show is successful or not. By the delight of the nearly sold-out audience and their enthusiastic reaction, it’s obvious they have a hit on their hands. Kudos.
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