By JOAN TADDIE
The Little Sisters of Hoboken wasted no time taking charge at The Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse this weekend. Even Artistic Director, Dr. Anastacia Hawkins-Smith’s traditional curtain speech was cut short by the sisters who insisted that they were more than capable of explaining the 50/50 raffle and welcoming the audience members to the theater’s zany production of “Nunsense.”
The concept of Nunsense which opened Off-Broadway in 1985 with a book, music, and lyrics by Dan Goggin began as a line of greeting cards featuring a nun expressing comical, but irreverent thoughts for the day. It became the second longest running Off-Broadway show in history after “The Fantastics.” It won four Outer Critics Circle Awards, including best Off-Broadway musical, best book, and best music.
The Cocoa Village Playhouse audience was quickly drawn into the production by five talented and energetic nuns who inform the patrons that they are attending a variety show fund-raiser in the Mount Saint Helen’s School auditorium, which still has set pieces on stage left over from the recent 8th grade performance of “Grease.” The fund-raiser is being held to help finance the burial of the last four of the 52 sisters who died instantly after they were accidently poisoned when served vichyssoise soup by their convent cook Sister Julia, Child of God. The four sisters are being kept in the freezer because the Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Regina, used some of the money from the last fund-raiser to buy a Plasma TV for the convent.
You know instantly that you are in for a wacky ride.
The nuns entertain and educate us through song and dance and even an audience quiz on the history of the order, with Catholic prayer cards as prizes to audience members who answer correctly in the Catholic school tradition. Father Bob, sweetly played by Bob Barone who is also the Music Director and Conductor of the delightful 9-piece orchestra, occasionally pops up from conducting in a down stage pit opening to offer advice and support to the nuns.
Taylor Chang adds youthful charm and passion as Sister Mary Leo, a novice whose dream is to become the first ballerina nun. Ms. Chang’s performance of “The Dying Nun Ballet” shows her comedic timing and talent. Mary Jo Marzilli, the street-wise Sister Robert Anne, chosen to be the understudy in the show, continues to entertain us with her hilarious attempts to impress the Reverend Mother with a multitude of characterizations accomplished by manipulating and adding accessories to her veil. Ms. Marzilli has a special moment at the beginning of Act Two when she sings the very poignant “Growing Up Catholic.”
Rita Moreno is right at home playing The Mistress of the Novices, Sister Mary Hubert, the tapping nun who leads the entire tapping cast in “Tackle That Temptation with a Time Step” at the end of Act One. But Ms. Moreno’s shining moment comes at the end of Act Two with her gospel rendition of “Holier Than Thou” with the rest of the cast singing back-up in this show-stopper.
Shelle Waller as Sister Mary Amnesia, a nun who lost her memory when she was hit on the head by a falling crucifix, is the vocal workhorse of the ensemble. Her required vocal range from high operatic notes, beautifully delivered, to a strong belt is showcased in the comical and clever “So You Want to be a Nun.” Ms. Waller performs this duet with her vocally opposite belting and irreverent nun hand puppet and sings both parts without a vocal hitch. Another explosive performance was Ms. Waller’s country western rendition of “I Could Have Gone to Nashville.”
Tracey Thompson owns the stage as the Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. Someone has to keep the craziness at the convent under control and she does. From her first entrance as she encourages woots and whistles from the audience, to her ability to charm and discipline Catholic and non-Catholic audience members alike with her lilting Irish brogue, her love for the spotlight (she grew up in the Circus), and her infamous Catholic “clicker,” Ms. Thompson is in command. Two audience vocal favorites were “Just a Coupl’a Sisters,” a duet with Ms. Moreno, and Ms. Thompson’s show stopper in Act One, “Turn Up the Spotlight,” complete with two large red feather fans. Ms. Thompson’s comedic timing was impeccable, especially in the cookbook scene and the riotous “Rush” scene where we see her lose control of everything.
Lighting and Scenic Designer, Ian Cook, makes us believe we have been transported to the appropriately named Mount St. Helen’s School auditorium where performers sometimes have to search for their lights and work around or with leftover scenery and props from the last school play. Kudos to Assistant Director and Choreographer, Megan Abbott, for giving the nuns fun dance moves that only require minimal lifting of their skirts.
Artistic Director, Anastacia Hawkins-Smith’s fast-paced direction allowed the actors to interact and connect with the audience members throughout the show and to celebrate and find humor in the trials and tribulations of a traditional Catholic education. There were lots of smiles and laughter as people left the theater; and lots of memories to talk about after the show.
COCOA VILLAGE PLAYHOUSE production of “Nunsense” has finished its run. Coming up is CVP’s production of “Cats,” which runs Jan. 29 – Feb. 14. Call 321-636-5050 or visit CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com.Our guest critic, Joan Taddie, is a well respected member of the theater community. Ms. Taddie has acted, directed and taught and continues to do so. Her children’s program begins soon at the Henegar Center. And, she will be appearing as Millicent Winter in the Henegar’s upcoming production of “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” which opens March 4, 2016.