A 20-year habit


Deborah Douglas and Kitty Kean—don’t call them penguins.

Deborah Douglas and Kitty Kean—don’t call them penguins.

Rated 3.0

Anniversaries—like everything else in life—eventually land in your lap in many shapes and sizes. Three years ago, Waiting for Godot turned 50, and only one local group, the Actor’s Theatre, took notice. This year, Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre has taken on the 20th-anniversary production of Nunsense.

For the uninitiated, Nunsense was created by small-town Michigan expatriate Dan Goggin, based on his own memories of Catholic education. The original revue enjoyed a 10-year off-Broadway run and spawned five spinoffs: a sequel, a Nashville side trip, a Christmas show, a Kosher variation and (perhaps inevitably) the all-male reprise Nunsense A-Men! This month, Goggin launched a nuns-in-Vegas version, which naturally opened at a dinner theater in Minnesota. All told, Nunsense has blossomed from a cottage industry into a franchise, having cumulatively sold more than $300 million in tickets. The show never quite made it to Broadway, but the Middle American dinner-theater crowd still loves it. Goggin may command little respect in “serious” theater circles, but he’s smiling all the way to the bank.

What keeps folks buying tickets? Nunsense is a mix of puns (“St. Francis was a sissy” and “Hello, Dalai Lama”) and jokes referencing Groucho Marx, Ed Sullivan and other long-gone icons. It’s set within a cabaret pastiche of Broadway-style vamping, country, gospel and vocal pop reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters. The plot is paper-thin, existing only to get us from number to number. There are tap-dancing nuns, a ventriloquist nun with a puppet and so on. It’s mindless, frothy fun—fairly described in Garbeau’s press release as “a vacation without the baggage.”

Since there’s nothing even faintly serious about Nunsense, any production rises or falls on the enthusiasm and comedic talent of the players. And it helps if they can sing. This rendition features Kitty Kean (who has a good set of pipes) as a tough-talking Brooklyn nun. The role doesn’t give Kean the leading part, which she previously enjoyed in The King and I and The Music Man at Garbeau’s, but she makes the most of it. The others (Erin Renfree as Mother Superior, Patricia Rickrode as Sister Amnesia, Deborah Douglas as Sister Mary Hubert and Wendy Modlin as novice Mary Leo) win smiles and sing well enough to make it work. The show’s also been updated slightly; there are jokes about Viagra and a DVD player that would have bewildered audiences 20 years ago.