Fun Has Faded in ‘Nunsense’ at the Avo

“We need to bury those four blue nuns” and toss the “Nunsense” concept in there too.

What started out as the marketing scheme for snarky nun greeting cards and grew to the second-longest running off-Broadway show back in the 1980s is now as stale as a communion wafer.

Top L-R: Rae Henderson, Aubrey Elson Bottom L-R: Brenda Oen, Sue Boland, and Sarah Errington Photo: Ken Jacques

Top L-R: Rae Henderson, Aubrey Elson
Bottom L-R: Brenda Oen, Sue Boland, and Sarah Errington
Photo: Ken Jacques

Nuns have been the brunt of jokes since the Reformation and became popular and woefully fictional characters in ballads, film and on TV.  In the musical Nunsense, seminarian turned card designer and musical theater playwright Dan Goggin pokes fun at Catholicism and the nuns who herd children around with clickers and rulers.

There was a time when audiences flocked to see it. Dinner theaters and dull high schools still run the farce: five out of the 52 remaining nuns of the Little Sisters of Hoboken are desperate to raise money to bury fellow sisters who died of accidental poisoning, and four are stored in the convent freezer. But, dear Lord, why did an organization as mighty as Moonlight Stage Productions choose to open their winter season at the Avo Playhouse with this dead musical? It’s supposed to be cheesy and isn’t funny anymore.

There’s no shortage of talent on the tiny stage, and the women in habits and wimples give it their best. But director/choreographer Carlos Mendoza can’t go back to the 80s when joke cracking and tap dancing nuns were deemed as exciting as a new pope.  Those few who collect nun memorabilia and loved Catholic school may roll in nostalgia. For the rest, cast your expectations into the river and pray.  Nunsense does not measure up to Moonlight’s hilarious Young Frankenstein from last summer. And no surprise, a quiz portion that involves audience preparation falls flat. If you’re determined to go, beware of the front rows.

Sue Boland as the Reverend Mother reminds us of the stiff disapproving nun in The Sound of Music, but she plays a fool with fruit on her head after whiffing RUSH (an amyl nitrate popper). She acts like a crazy clubber for more than five minutes instead of 20 seconds.

Aubrey Elson as Sister Mary Leo plays the sweet and fair wanna-be ballet dancer and spoofs the Flying Nun, Sally Fields.

Sarah Errington and her sidekick puppet. Photo: Ken Jacques

Sarah Errington and her sidekick puppet. Photo: Ken Jacques

Sarah Errington as Sister Mary Amnesia is dim and loveable, especially in a puppet routine. Her half smile and eye rolls are precious, and she can hit operatic high notes.

Brenda Oen as Sister Mary Hubert, who played Bloody Mary in Moonlight’s excellent South Pacific, soars in the final gospel song “Holier Than Thou.”

The ambitious street thug Sister Robert Anne offers sincere regrets and twirls her habit in artful ways.  Her stirring solo “I Just Want to Be a Star” with watery eyes glistening is a highlight. During an afternoon matinee, hers was one of the few songs that resonated with heart because her mic wasn’t cranked to 11.  In an old gem of a theater like the Avo, singers with pipes don’t need microphones.

The four-piece band in Nunsense sounds heavenly, conducted and piano played by Lyndon Pugeda. Scenic designer N. Dixon Fish recreates a believable high school backdrop of “Grease,” which the sisters borrow for their fundraiser. But unlike campy Mel Brooks’ shows, this one hasn’t aged well. It smacks of a time when hair and glasses were big and nuns were comic fodder, lumped into a group of cloaked lesbian or asexual non humans.

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The nuns in Nunsense come off as petty and childlike instead of hardworking women. And there’s a very strange song about the nun’s order escaping a leper colony. That’s an era you want to forget. A snide joke from a nun on a greeting card is good for a quick laugh, but this two-hour musical of gags stalls and can’t shift into high gear.

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AVO Playhouse
303 Main Street Vista CA 92084 Home Phone: 760.742.2110
Categories: Dance, Music, Visual Arts
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  1. Jerry Hodge on January 31, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Your review really nails it. Weak script, solid actors, and we left at intermission.

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