I would’ve lost a bet that nuns would make for the most popular topic in South Jersey community theatre this year. When I read that Burlington County Footlighters planned to present Nunsense A-Men this December, I had to question the wisdom of this decision. Three area companies staged productions of Sister Act over the last several months. How could another theatre company hold my attention regarding the topic of holy sisters? I wondered. I can’t say Footlighters surprised me by figuring a means to do so. They selected a show so unusual it would’ve impressed Samuel Beckett. I attended their opening night performance of Nunsense A-Men on December 8th.
Playwright Dan Goggin crafted a veritable trifecta of distinctiveness. Nunsense contained the most imaginative premise, story and setting I’ve encountered. Here goes my best attempt to explain the tale. The cast consisted of five main characters: all nuns played by male actors. The convent’s cook—the comically named Sister Julia, Child of God—served an improperly prepared helping of vichysoisse to the community’s sisters. As a result 52 perished from food poisoning. The surviving nuns raised enough money for the burials. Thinking they had more cash than needed for the task, the Mother Superior wasted some of the funds on pricey home entertainment amenities. This spending spree left the order with only enough means to bury 48 of the nuns. They placed those remaining in the freezer until they could acquire the funds to finish the task. To raise that capital, they decided to host a variety show at the Mount Saint Helen’s school auditorium. They didn’t change the stage set from the school’s eighth grade production of Grease in the background. Add to this mix a series of eccentric characters. Sister Act this wasn’t.
Director Jillian Starr Renbjor selected an A-level cast for Nunsense A-Men. Her choices gave Musical Director Peg Smith and Choreographer Kaitlyn Delengowski some superb talent with which to work.
Matt Maerten took on the role of erstwhile dancer, Sister Mary Leo. This marked the first occasion I’ve watched a ballet routine performed in a community theatre show. Mr. Maerten executed some impressive turns and jumps throughout the evening. One really has to credit a performer for doing so while wearing a dress. He also delivered some excellent singing on “Benedicte.” He crooned a sensational duet with Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on “The Biggest Ain’t the Best.”
John Romano, Jr. played one bad mother of a Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. He got the comedy started the moment he took the stage. He delivered his first line by speaking with a high voice. After clearing his throat he reverted to his deeper range. I enjoyed his singing on “Turn Up the Spotlight” as well as his pining for his character’s possible past as a tightrope walker. This performer’s highlight came when he presented a witty take on why nuns should avoid anything stronger than coffee. For the record: I was glad you’re character was okay, Mr. Romano. The remainder of the show wouldn’t have been as entertaining without you.
Connor Twigg played Sister Robert Anne: the wannabe Mother Superior. From the passion he injected into that role, he showed just how badly the character wanted it. His strong singing on “I Just Want to Be a Star” made the title ironic. An actor that talented already is one. He delivered great comedy chops with his Carmen Miranda hat and impressions of the Wicked Witch of the West and Idina Menzel. (Again I emphasize just how original this show’s content.) Reprising his superb tap dancing skills I last saw in The Drowsy Chaperone, Mr. Twigg put on his taps while leading the rest of the cast through a soft shoe dance.
DJ Hedgepath…well, the best compliment I can give him is that he delivered a “DJ Hedgepath kind of performance.” After speaking in a slightly high pitched Southern accent all evening, he crooned his character’s yearning ode to Country stardom: “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” For this show he added the task of “quiz show host” to his repertoire. Mr. Hedgepath conducted a question period with the audience. It takes a great deal of courage for a performer to interact with live spectators. Mr. Hedgepath handled their unscripted responses perfectly; improvising while remaining in character. To prove once more that there’s no activity he can’t handle on stage: he performed opposite a puppet that he operated. His character, Sister Mary Amnesia, may have struggled with her memory. No one who watched his performance in Nunsense will ever forget it.
Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. rounded out the cast as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices. At first I felt disappointed by the musical material the show presented him. Mr. Thompson delivered his usual outstanding singing. His duets with Mr. Romano and Mr. Marteen served as good examples. The songs, however, didn’t challenge his extraordinary vocal prowess. It turned out he was making the audience wait for his big number. I’ve described Mr. Thompson as one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He belted out an extraordinary performance of the gospel based “Holier than Thou” number. He proved that in terms of vocal ability, he sure is.
Jim Frazer designed a set that well suited the show. The entire time I watched the performance, I felt like I was in a middle school auditorium staging a performance of Grease. I thought the “Greased Lighting” insignia on the car a nice touch. The chalkboard menu across from the 1950s style counter made the setting more authentic, as well. He also designed the lighting. Nunsense featured more illumination adjustments than most shows. At times the house lights went up, in some scenes the stage lights dimmed while in others a character performed in the spotlight. It impressed me that no glitches occurred.
The show’s opening didn’t grab my attention as I would have preferred. At first performers walked about the theatre interacting with the audience. Following that, the characters walked around the stage prattling. It seemed disorganized, but understanding the characters and the premise after watching the whole show, it made sense. The scene did bring me into the world of the story. I still thought the beginning could’ve started with more immediacy.
I wouldn’t have thought that five men dressed as nuns playing in yet another show about holy sisters could keep my focus for an entire evening. I’d normally attribute this to an early Christmas Miracle, but I have to credit phenomenal performances from gifted cast members. To illustrate how well they suspended my disbelief, when MacKenzie Smith took the stage as Sister Mary Meredith Taco, I thought it strange to watch a female performer portray a nun. Now that’s skill.
For those who missed opening weekend, Hallelujah! Nunsense A-Men runs through December 17th at Burlington County Footlighters.