Melanie Guerin

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

Salsa Opera

Review of In the Heights, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park closes its 2017-18 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights, the pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning musical by the much-celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda goes over like a party where everyone has a good time, even if there are some weepy moments and some surface tension between friends, family, and lovers. The show doesn’t strive for any big statements or stretch itself looking for gritty drama. Call it salsa opera to differentiate it from the soapy kind, it plays out much the same. Likeable and energetic, the cast make the most of the first act where we’re getting to know our way around a neighborhood—based on where Miranda once lived—in Washington Heights. Act Two, where the plot-points—about beloveds and beloved businesses that may be moving on, and lottery tickets and disapproving elders and flunking out of Stanford—have to find their resolutions, has all the surprise of a story told to children. So much so, I found myself thinking how much In the Heights owes to Avenue Q—staged very successfully at Playhouse on Park back in the fall—which, of course, mimics Sesame Street, which is to say this is theater that owes an awful lot to television.

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

But such complaints have to do with Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Book. And who cares about books? What matters here is what happens on stage, and director Sean Harris, choreographer Darlene Zoller, the band led by Melanie Guerin, and the performers bring it. The opening, title song is a stirring blend of rapped lyrics, infectious beats, and a team of dancers managing to look both free and precise. We’re mostly in the palm of the show’s hand from then on, as character after character—there are twelve named roles—wins us over. The opening mood is of a charming bonhomie that cloys a bit, but soon finds its emotional tone when Nina Rosario (Analise Rios) returns to the ’hood, feeling out of place and also ashamed of her lack of candor about her academic standing (“Respire (Breathe)”). Her parents, Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) own and operate Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service and couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s scholarship to Stanford. Little do they know.

The fact that some get away from their origins and some get trapped by them is much on Miranda and Hudes’ minds, and they try to have it both ways: making the barrio a familial place that supports and welcomes all even if—as with the authors themselves—many would rather ride some good fortune downtown or out west. Enter that elusive lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The winning nature of the full-cast songs is what sells the show—“When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout” (the action is set in July, 1999, when there was an 18-hour blackout in the area). We also get a spirited invocation—anachronistically—of carnaval in “Carnaval del Barrio” because, why not? Comic leavening is provided by Piragüero (Willie Marte) and his piragua cart, and by Benny (Leyland Patrick), the go-fer at the cabstand who is sweet on the boss’s daughter, and who gets to sound off entertainingly on the dispatcher mic early on.

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Show-stopping vocal numbers are provided by Amy Jo Philips as Claudia, the honorary “Abuela” of the entire street—her enthralling song explores her own mother’s tagline “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”—and Camila’s “Enough,” a let ’em have it diatribe aimed at her sparring daughter and spouse that Stephanie Pope—seen recently to good effect at Long Wharf’s Crowns—delivers with amazing force. Another of the show’s vocal assets is Sandra Marante who plays Daniela, the no-nonsense owner of a hair salon, and who dresses sharp and moves like the boss of the show. Support is handled by a number of others, such as the sweetly innocent Carla (Paige Buade), the beset but spirited Vanessa (Sophia Introna), the cute and put-upon Sonny (Nick Palazzo), and the street-skills—including tagging and breakdancing—of Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme). As Kevin, Nina’s dad, JL Rey handles well his key song of bathos—“Inútil (Useless)”—and manages to be a paternalistic Papi who isn’t a prick (Miranda and Hudes make sure everyone has redeeming qualities).

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

As Nina, Analise Rios has a sweet and clear voice that mines the beauty in Miranda’s ballads, such as “Respire,”  and especially “Everything I Know,” in Act Two. And as Usnavi de la Vega, the part Miranda originally enacted, Niko Touros is the epitome of a well-meaning, hopeful, hard-working romantic, a street-poet whose raps are his way of capturing his observations, his obsessions, and his heartfelt appreciation of the world he lives in. Like any poet, he knows that any world is all the world, that the people around him are the stuff of song and romance and spirit and grit and that seeing them that way—no matter what they think of themselves—is a find even more sustaining than a winning lottery ticket.

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

There’s heart and spirit—and great costumes—aplenty on view In the Heights, where uplift is what you get from others because you give it to them, and vice versa. Dance Captain Olivia Ryan and the ensemble—Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Jahlil Burke, Maya Cuevas, Jon Rodriguez—provide plenty of youthful moves whether in a block party or a club. Your toes will be tapping, your eyes drinking in the fun of the big dance numbers, and don’t let the flag-waving of Latin American countries fool you. This is America, amigo.

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Sean Harris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Emily Nichols; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Paige Buade, Jahlil M. Burke, Maya Cuevas, Paul Edme, Sophia Introna, Sandra Marante, Willie Marte, Nick Palazzo, Leyland Patrick, Amy Jo Phillips, Stephanie Pope, JL Rey, Analise Rios, Jon Rodriguez, Olivia Ryan, Niko Touros

Musicians: Melanie Guerin, keyboard 1 and musical direction; Mark Ceppetelli, keyboard 2; Billy Bivona, guitar; Adam Clark, Sean Rubin, bass; Elliot Wallace, drums; Daryl Belcher, drums; Harry Kliewe, reeds; Tucker Barney, Don Clough, trumpet; Andrew Jones, trombone

Playhouse on Park
June 13-July 29, 2018