Entertaining nuns keep things lively in 'Nunsense' performance

August 14, 2010|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Comedy is being served this month and next by five hilarious nuns at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia. As done by Toby's cast, "Nunsense," the madcap musical revue by composer and lyricist Dan Coggin, is more entertaining than ever.

Serving only as a frame for the nuns' variety show, Coggin's lightweight plot begins when the Little Sisters of Hoboken discover that their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, accidentally poisoned 52 nuns with her lethal vichyssoise. All have been buried except six who have been temporarily stashed in the freezer for lack of burial funds. Unfortunately, the Reverend Mother spent part of the burial money on a new TV set. The sisters decide the best way to raise money to bury the remaining nuns is to put on a variety show where they can showcase their individual talents onstage. They plan to take over the school auditorium currently set up for an eighth-grade "Grease" performance.

In Toby's production, the nunnery location has moved from Hoboken to Scaggsville, Md. Now known as the Little Sisters of Scaggsville, they still answer to their familiar names — Sister Mary Regina, Sister Mary Hubert, Sister Robert Anne, Sister Mary Amnesia and Sister Mary Leo, who all do their good works in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

All five cast members gracing Toby's stage are believable as wacky nuns who immediately involve the audience in their fun, whipping up enthusiasm for their comic schemes. Each has the required vocal ability, comedy chops and high-voltage energy to give an inspired performance.

First to invoke laughter is all-knowing Sister Mary Regina, the Mother Superior whose penetrating gaze takes in everyone in the room and perhaps reads thoughts of Roman Catholic audience members who may recognize her from their parochial school days. As played by Jane C. Boyle, we are immediately convinced that Mary Regina will lead the nuns out of despair resulting from Sister Julia's vicious vichyssoise annihilating most of the convent's membership, a situation rendered more desperate by Reverend Mother's injudicious purchase of a state-of-the-art Blu-ray TV set.

Reverend Mother, a former circus performer from a Flying Wallendas-like family of tightrope walkers, longs for another chance in the spotlight. Boyle raises her superb soprano in "Turn Up the Spotlight" to express Mary Regina's fierce desire to be a star while revealing the high spirits hidden beneath her proper exterior. Later, Boyle's Reverend Mother gets hilariously high snorting a student's stash of Rush, described as a locker room drug.

Second in command is Sister Mary Hubert, played by Jesaira Glover, who is impossible to fool and knows how to keep all errant sisters in line. Glover sings a gospel-inspired "Holier Than Thou" that raises the rafters to create the show's soulful finale.

Heather Beck plays the streetwise nun from Brooklyn with a delinquent past, Sister Robert Anne. She's the convent chauffeur who can strip the car as easily as fix it. Unhappy with her role as stand-in performer, Beck's Sister Robert Anne lights up the stage with her "I Just Want to Be a Star" to reveal her megawatt star power. She is also a riot as she manipulates her wimple to transform herself from Pocahontas to Pippi Longstocking and other heroines.

MaryLee Adams plays Sister Mary Leo, a wannabe ballerina who proves she can dance in a surprisingly graceful athletic routine. She also holds her own vocally in the solo number "Benedicite" and with Glover's Sister Mary Hubert in "Lilacs Bring Back Memories."

The show's most sympathetic character, Sister Mary Amnesia, who lost her memory after being hit by a falling crucifix, is perfectly played by Jessica Ball, who livens up the audience by quizzing them about Little Sisters of Scaggsville history. A skilled comedian and actor, Ball reveals a fine singing voice in "So You Want to Be a Nun," a duet she sings with a puppet, and in her major country number, "I Could've Gone to Nashville," where she remembers who she actually is.

As usual at Toby's, a few skilled musicians produce a big sound to add sparkle to the performance, this time under the direction of Ross Rawlings. Director Mark Minnick's choreography brightens the show, even adding distinction to the standard-time step when executed by his tap-dancing nuns.

Evening and matinee performances of "Nunsense" continue through Sept. 19. Call 410-730-8311 to reserve seats.

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