Hillary Ekwall

Nun For All and All for Nun: Playhouse on Park Brings on the Nunsense

Review of Nunsense, Playhouse on Park

What lends charm to Dan Goggin’s venerable Nunsense after all these years is how refreshing it is to see a musical that, while unabashedly silly, is full of affection for the schtick of musical revues. The invigorating notion that “anyone can put on a show”—that everyone has intuited the forms of Old School musical comedy, even a group of nuns—is the conceit that drives the show’s machine. And it works!

Reverend Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker) and the remaining nuns of the Little Sisters of Hoboken are in a fix: botulism in the vichyssoise prepared by Sister Julia, Child of God has killed all the other Sisters and all but four have been buried. Now money must be raised to inter the four stored in the convent’s freezer before a health crisis ensues. The solution: sing and dance and earn the needed cash. Anyone who has ever been associated with a school or religious organization knows that fund-raisers are part of the calendar. Here, there’s much appeal to the Appeal.

Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland), Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker), Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall) in Playhouse on Park’s Nunsense, directed by Darlene Zoller (photos by Rich Wagner)

Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland), Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker), Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall) in Playhouse on Park’s Nunsense, directed by Darlene Zoller (photos by Rich Wagner)

The humor in seeing a fivesome of nuns assay tap and ballet and Ethel Mermenesque belting may well be a matter of simple incongruity, but what Goggin—who was once a seminarist before performing in and then writing for theater—gets is how quirky the ladies of the habit can be. Each has her plausible skill or gripe or affliction—such as the faulty memory of timid Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall), or the ambition of tetchy Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter) to be Top Nun, or the dream of sweet-faced novice Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland) to be a ballerina, or the way brassy Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson) of Canarsie asserts her stage-readiness at every opportunity.

Then there’s the Reverend Mother herself: with a background in carnival and a quirky sense of humor, her reign is full of the tics of idiosyncratic authority. And when she samples a bit of confiscated “Rush” (a form of amyl nitrate) she goes off on a gleefully slapstick bender that just gets weirder and weirder. Forker shows off the comedic skills she put to use in Say Things Funny, a tribute to Carol Burnett—the great TV comedienne of whom her routine is uproariously reminiscent. It’s a madcap, show-stopping set-piece that is both entertaining and unsettling.

Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker)

Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker)

The songs are peppy and showcase the cast’s skills, particularly Porter’s soulful rendition of “Holier Than Thou,” and Ekwall doubling herself with a fractious hand-puppet, Sister Mary Annette, while hitting angelic notes in “So You Want to Be a Nun.” The harmonizing on “Just a Coupl’a Sisters” between Porter and Forker seems natural and unforced. A certain kind of too-show-bizzyness could be the sin that would sink this show, but the cast, directed by Darlene Zoller, avoids the temptation. There’s a DIY aspect to the show that suits it, including patter with the onstage band featuring two players in school uniforms. The set, supposedly a school gym, bears the requisite basketball court markings, and also the left-over set from the previous show—a swing and divan and a vanity for strippers.

The nuns are engaging and fun to spend time with, working the crowd, encouraging interaction and—as nuns are wont to do—imposing quizzes. The backstory about a mission of mercy to an island of lepers goes by quite quickly (thankfully) early on, then Sister Mary Amnesia asks us about the details we remember, which leads to her sweetly earnest awarding of prizes to lucky audience-members. At times the show’s jokes can be a bit dated—Sally Fields and plays on the names of classic shows, and, by Dickinson, impressions of famous divas such as Cher and Katherine Hepburn—but they’ll land for audiences with a sense of the past, such as variety shows of the ‘70s.

Nunsense kicks off Playhouse on Park’s eleventh season, a season aimed to “focus on universal stories that give women a voice.” The voices here are lively and, if a bit clichéd, well, that comes with the territory Goggin is covering. It may help to have been in the company of nuns at some point in one’s life to get the show’s full effect (I was for my first 8 years of education and the pews and statuary, chalices and censers in the lobby help set the mood), but the only necessary prerequisite to enjoying this easygoing show is a willingness to be entertained. And you will be—saints be praised!

 

Nunsense
A Musical Comedy
Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin
Directed by Darlene Zoller

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Shane Cassidy; Costume Designer: Lisa Ann Steier; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Lily Dickinson, Hillary Ekwall, Amanda Forker, Rachel Oremland, Brandi Porter

Band: Melanie Guerin, conductor, keyboard; Elliot Wallace, drums; Mallory Kokus, reeds; Phoebe Suzuki, violin

 

Playhouse on Park
September 18-October 13, 2019

A Dark Cabaret in Norwalk

Review of Cabaret, Music Theatre of Connecticut

As a musical, Cabaret has much to recommend it. The songs by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) are catchy and full of the charm of the demimonde. Joe Masteroff’s book manages to provide romance while capturing the risks of bohemia and the shock of the rise of Nazism. The story unfolds as a bitter lesson on several fronts, and yet, like its showman of an emcee, it manages to be engaging until all is lost. Played again—in MTC’s second staging of Cabaret—by Eric Scott Kincaid, The Emcee seems less a Mephistophelean overseer of the fortunes of the other characters and more like the portrait of Dorian Gray, suffering more the uglier the situation in Berlin grows. Kincaid’s Emcee looks tortured and tired from the start, an emblem of the Kit Kat Klub’s seediness and its losing effort to deny its days are numbered.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The show has a small cast, so there aren’t quite the big dance numbers we might expect, which also gives a realness to a Kit Kat Klub that lacks the glitz and sparkle of Broadway versions. The opening “Willkommen” has plenty of energy, and the dancers are close enough to flirt with audience members or to upbraid them for not flirting enough. Two male dancers, Tony Conaty and Alex Drost, provide the requisite Fossean physicality, and Hillary Ekwall, who plays Fräulein Kost, does a mean split.

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

The droll numbers—like “Two Ladies”—have a tawdriness that showcases the unreality of the romance between pining British showgirl Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar) and straitlaced American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nicolas Dromard). The romance between timid Jewish fruiterer Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling) and pragmatic German landlady Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) has perhaps a better chance of enduring, but that’s where the menace of the rising Nazis becomes most keenly felt. As Ernst Ludwig, Cliff’s student of English lessons, Andrew Foote is disarmingly friendly, even after everyone notices his armband, but as the edicts against Jews escalate, we know there will be violence.

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

As the irrepressible Sally Bowles, Desirée Davar sounds remarkably like Liza Minelli, the most famous Sally, in the big numbers “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” Davar is better in Act II, when emotions begin to take their toll, than she is as the bubbly, flirtatious Sally of Act I. As Cliff, Dromard is also best in Act II, when he begins to see what’s at stake. To Fräulein Schneider falls such great numbers as “So What?” in Act I and “What Would You Do?” in Act II, both trenchant expressions of a life with no illusions and not many choices, but their fatalism exposes the quietism that let the Nazis have their way. Kanengeiser plays the part perfectly, giving the aging fräulein a weary wit. Jim Schilling’s Herr Schultz is a nice match for her. He’s touching in his wooing, and their duet, “Married,” is a fragile, lyrical moment. His insistence that Nazism will pass because “I know the Germans and, after all, what am I? A German” acts as a sad reminder of how deluded even a Jewish merchant could be.

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Some of the popular songs featured in the film and in other iterations—such as “Money” and “Mein Herr”—are not here, as they weren’t in the initial version of the musical. Instead, “Sitting Pretty” and “Don’t Tell Mama,” both less jaunty, fill those spaces. This is a more chastened Cabaret, and its powerful ending stabs not only with the sorrow that no one gets what they want but with how horribly correct the Nazis were in singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (here greatly helped by the singing voice of Andrew Foote, who played Jekyll/Hyde with such power earlier this season). Against the Nazis brutal will to power, the call to “come to the Cabaret” is desperate, and Sally’s insistence that she’s “going out like Elsie,” her roommate who ended her life rather than live in an uncaring world, is apropos to the fates we see visited upon Herr Schultz and The Emcee.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

Somber in mood, Kevin Connors’ production of Cabaret is all-too appropriate to times when denial and dancing away a sense of doom are endemic. In that sense, one hopes life isn’t a Cabaret.

 

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic Design: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: RJ Romeo; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Prop Design: Merrie Deitch; Choreography: Simone DePaolo; Fight Staging: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Tony Conaty, Desirée Davar, Nicolas Dromard, Alex Drost, Hillary Ekwall, Andrew Foote, Anne Kanengeiser, Eric Scott Kincaid, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 29-April 14, 2019