Photos by Ryan C. Loyd, RyLo Media Design
This production was scheduled September 15-October 15, 2023
First, a warning. The five habit-wearing cast members of SLO REP’s current “heavenly” production of Nunsense could become habit-forming for audience members, who might be tempted to return night after night just to watch these characters in action. These performers are bright (in all senses of the word), they are individually—and collectively—charismatic, and they are walking, talking, and dancing proof that timing is everything in good slapstick comedy.
Kevin Harris, SLO REP’s managing artistic director, refers to this quintet as a “dream team,” and he knows what he is talking about. While the two-act musical itself is showing its age (the original Off-Broadway production opened in 1985, and other than updating one humorous technology reference, its music and book have changed little in almost 40 years) these local theatre veterans prove themselves state-of-the-art.
Suffice it to say that the plot—five full-habit-wearing members of the Catholic missionary order the Little Sisters of Hoboken are putting on a show in a school auditorium to raise needed funds—is secondary to the talents (and past lives) that each sister reveals in the course of the two-hour-including-15-minute-intermission show. In a sense, all director and choreographer John Keating and musical director Marshall Keating had to do is wind their talented cast members up and let them go. The brothers have musical theatre in their blood and it shows.
Each member of the cast has a chance to shine throughout the evening, showing off individual skills in numbers that, while comfortable vehicles for singing and dancing and even puppeteering, are not particularly remarkable or memorable—you won’t go home with an Oklahoma-style tune replaying itself in your head for the foreseeable future (and that may be okay with you . . .).
The irrepressible Suzy Newman as Sister Mary Hubert hits her marks over and over again, capping off the show leading the company in “Holier Than Thou,” a more rousing and satisfying closer than the first-act opener and the final-act finale “Nunsense Is Habit Forming.”
While Newman’s Sister Hubert often displays a bit of irreverent humor—and sometimes even second-guesses the convent’s Reverend Mother—Billy Breed takes top honors for flagrantly hamming it up in his role as the head of the order. Given a chance, his character embraces the first act ballad, “Turn Up the Spotlight,” with an always-excellent Breed calling up his inner “Sister Mary Streisand.” Watching him as the Reverend Mother getting high (accidentally, of course) is worth the price of admission, as is the sight of tap-dancing nuns as they all close the first act with “Tackle That Temptation with a Time-Step.”
The nimble-of-tongue Rachel Tietz as Sister Robert Ann convinces us she’s doing more than “Playing Second Fiddle” in the middle of the first act, then practically stops the show in the middle of the second act with her all-out effort in “I Just Want To Be a Star.”
Then there is Katie Worley-Beck as Sister Mary Amnesia, whose operatic voice and proficiency handling an unexpected hand puppet proves her character hasn’t forgotten everything from her pre-convent life.
Natalie Mara is lovely as the convent’s novice Sister Mary Leo who, to the delight of the audience, reveals toe-shoes under her habit and confides that ballet is the way she prays. Mara and Newman offer up a lovely duet in “The Biggest Ain’t the Best,” an unfortunately-named show tune that still gives the pair the opportunity to connect with the audience.
A final shout-out to “Sister Mary,” an unseen nun that cast members say is running the show’s follow-spot. Credit for the perfectly timed lights and sound should more likely go to stage manager Lupita Rodriguez for her reliable behind-the-scenes work.
Nunsense runs Thursdays through Sundays through October 15.