Review: Barn Theatre Goes Above and Beyond with Utter 'Nunsense'

Every now and then in theatre, you come across a performance so delightful, so inspired, the material from which it springs hardly matters.

Penelope Alex as Reverend Mother in The Barn Theatre’s current production of “Nunsense” alone makes the show worth seeing. Equal parts stern and adorable, every quip, every gesture, every facial expression—for facial expression is nearly everything when covered head to toe in black fabric—is comedy gold. And the handful of minutes at the end of Act I in which she unintentionally sniffs glue and grows increasingly compromised, sillier with every second, is some of the finest physical comedy I’ve ever seen. Alex proves, yet again, in this role that she is an extraordinary comedienne.

This “Nunsense” is the original musical comedy that launched the now nearly 40-year-old “Nunsense" franchise phenomenon. With book, music, and lyrics by Dan Goggin, “Nunsense” is the second-longest running Off-Broadway show in history, it has six sequels, has been adapted for both film and television, has been translated into 26 languages, and has grossed more than $500 million worldwide.

The premise starts with the five remaining “Little Sisters of Hoboken” who aspire to become the “Big Sisters of Newark” but they have a little problem to solve. Their numbers are down dramatically since the convent cook, Sister Julia, child of God, served a double dose of botulism in her vichyssoise, mistakenly killing 52 sisters, only 48 of whom they could afford to bury. Four “girls” are in the freezer and they need to get them into the ground before the health inspector finds them. Hence, they’re putting on the very show before our eyes as a fundraiser to put to rest the remaining corpses from that unfortunate “last supper”.

With a blend of gentle banter with the audience, a gameshow-style quiz, solo song-and-dance numbers, and all the nun-jokes imaginable (virgins, penguins, etc.), the show is a crowd-pleaser. Audiences, largely made up of Baby Boomers, can’t get enough of the silly, slightly irreverent, fun that comes from a bunch of kooky, distinct nuns making fun of themselves. Critics notoriously despise the shows, but no matter, for as The Minneapolis Star Tribune once pointed out, a critic is useless at a “Nunsense" show.

Especially one as sharply produced as this iteration at The Barn directed by Brendan Ragotzy. For in addition to Alex’s brilliant performance there are four other enormous characters on stage sprung to life deftly by a wonderfully-talented, well-cast group of women.

Ciarra Stroud plays an understated yet knowing Sister Mary Hubert, a terrific foil to Alex’s Reverend Mother, and she really brings the spirit with her foot-stomping, hand-clapping “Holier Than Thou”. Allena Evans is a perfectly vapid Sister Amnesia, fully embodying the other sisters’ description: “nice house, nobody home”, and her stunning, operatic voice is a most wonderful surprise. Emily Babcock is an innocent, open-faced Sister Mary Leo, for whom dancing is her way to pray—an especially funny schtick given her childlike balletic combinations performed in slippers. She’s a hoot in her Dying Swan/Flying Nun parody. Lizzie Maguire channels a Brooklyn accent for Sister Robert Anne and softens the tough-guy act with lovely singing and a playful love of The Wizard of Oz (made all the more fun for audiences who saw The Barn’s tremendous production earlier in August) and by twisting her habit to create imitations of beloved characters.

Technically the show is strong as well, creating exactly the sounds and sights this show needs. An attractive single set with no scene changes by Brett Burradell, perfect props by Steven Lee Burright, fun and funny lights by Adam Guerriero, armography and cute pantomime in addition to the ballet numbers choreographed by Aaron Czarnecki, excellent sound by Troy Benton and those exquisitely tailored habits by Karsen Green all make us believe the silly nunsense unfolding on stage. Musical Director Matt Shabala even interplays with the sisters from the pit with his excellent five-piece band, and Stage Manager Jerry McAllister, too, makes a rare cameo appearance to add to the fun.

For it’s all in good fun, no more no less, in this nunsensical world of make believe where there’s absolutely nothing sinister in an accidental mass murder or in the Catholic Church and its quirks in general. The jokes come fast and furious, the performances are tremendous, and the audiences laugh out loud and leave the theater smiling after seeing this well-executed, light-hearted show.

Barn Theatre
Aug. 29-Sept. 3