Phoenix Festival Theatre’s NUNSENSE: Holy Hilarity in Bel Air, MD

by S. Lee Lewis

The cast of NUNSENSE at Phoenix Festival Theatre, running at Harford Community College through March 18.

The theatre snob in me definitely wants to hate a show like Dan Goggin’s NUNSENSE. After all – what is the point of the show? It is purely an entertainment – no solid message, no one song or scene that will change the world or evoke change – so, what’s the point? It’s simple – in the world we live in with wars spawning every two weeks and markets crashing on a daily basis, it is exactly what is needed. There is nothing better than going out for the evening and being able to forget about the world for two hours and just laugh and enjoy the hilarity and ridiculousness of Goggin’s work. Phoenix Festival Theatre’s production of NUNSENSE, directed by John Desmone did not disappoint.

The five women taking on the roles of the Little Sisters of Hoboken individually had some truly wonderful moments, but sometimes struggled a bit to get their groove during the ensemble numbers. A standout performance was given by Kim Brueggemann (Sr. Hubert) who, while struggling a bit vocally during her tour de force number “Holier Than Thou”, more than made up for it with her comedic timing and double takes. Watching Brueggemann let loose onstage was like watching Cloris Leachman in person. No beat was missed and the caustic deadpan humor that Leachman is known for was prevalent in Brueggemann’s portrayal.

The second standout was Lauren Spencer-Harris (Sr. Robert Anne). In my opinion Robert Anne is the best track in the show and Spencer-Harris shines as the ballsy nun who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. There is a duality in this role – the fast paced, high energy patter we see in a song like “Playing Second Fiddle” has to be equally matched with a soft sincerity in “Growing Up Catholic” and Spencer-Harris was able to do this with ease.

The best moment in the show, however, was one where only a single nun was on stage. Towards the end of Act One, Sr. Robert Anne finds a mysterious substance in the girl’s locker room and brings the find to Reverend Mother, played by Laurie Starkey. Needless to say, Rev. Mother takes a big whiff of the ‘mysterious substance’ and hilarity ensues! Starkey has the stage to herself and boy does she enjoy every minute of it – she had the audience eating out of her hand during the entire scene. I have seen this show multiple times, and Starkey’s RUSH scene was by far one of the best. My only complaint about Starkey’s performance was her accent – it seemed to fade in and out, and I think her performance would have been even stronger if she wasn’t worrying about maintaining an Irish brogue – which is quite unnecessary for the role.

Jacki Walsh (Sr. Amnesia) and Laura Pierpont (Sr. Leo) were also quite enjoyable, however, the technical aspects of this show were working against them quite often. Walsh had the joy of playing Sr. Amnesia, and along with that, Sr. Marionette. The sound design and operation during the show almost ruined her portrayal for me. It almost seemed like there was no one running the sound board during the show, and while some were able to compensate for this, Walsh was not. Sr. Amnesia has such highs and lows in the show that Walsh vocally has to be all over the place – it is a shame that she didn’t have the sound support to back her up. The actual sound design for the show seemed out of place and seemed to be treated like an afterthought. Nothing seemed to fit, and all sound effects seemed very canned.

With such an intimate space, and the use of a small combo aptly led by musical director Chris Rose, the use of body mics seemed a bit of an overkill – especially since they were mixed so poorly. I was able to hear and understand the sisters much better while they were doing their pre-show and intermission schtick without the support of mics!

While costumes might seem a bit odd to bring up (aren’t they all in habits?!?) I did question one choice. Sr. Leo’s costume was so restrictive that during her two dance numbers she was not able to fully execute the dance moves choreographed by Bambi Johnson. While this may have been on purpose, and done in jest (Sister Leo does wax on about wishing she could wear a tutu so you can see more of the dance), all I wanted to do during her dance numbers was walk on stage and cut a slit in her dress so she could properly extend her leg. Pierpont was so endearing and lovable in the scenes that followed the dances that I quickly forgot about costumes issues I had with the show.

On the flip side – the lighting design by Patrick Trzeciak (an HCC student!) was the best lighting design I have seen executed in that space. Trzeciak is to be commended for his work, which was by far the strongest technical aspect of the show – it’s a shame that the other areas didn’t come up to the standard he set for the show.

All in all, the five sisters did a fantastic job and I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. If you are looking for an evening of laughs, this is the show for you. Those these ladies may need to go to confession when they are done with the show! Enjoy the show and remember: Support Your Local Theatre!

A musical comedy by Dan Goggin
Direction by John Desmone
Musical Direction by Chris Rose
Choreography by Bambi Johnson
March 10 – 18, 2012
Phoenix Festival Theatre
at Harford Community College
401 Thomas Run Road
Bel Air, MD 21015
Box Office: 443.412.2211

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1 comment

Derek James March 20, 2012 - 10:27 pm

I see a lot of theater–both community and professional. I try very hard not to read reviews before I see a show but I am always anxious to read them afterwards to see how my opinions align with that of the reviewer. Sometimes I agree with the reviewer, sometimes I don’t. The same could be said of this review of Nunsense. I am not writing, however, to share where I agree and where I don’t with this review. What I found so interesting about this review is that the reviewer is the Producing Artistic Director of another theater located reasonably close to Phoenix Festival Theater. It seems to me that an Artistic Director of a theater that is likely to use many of the same cast members, production staff, and to some degree competes with the theater being reviewed is not the best candidate to write an unequivocally objective piece. Just something to think about.


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