Drama-Logue - 2/22/96

-Michael Sander

Sister Amnesia's country Western Nunsense Jamboree

All over the country, dinner theatres that opened during this theatre form’s great wave of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s have closed up shop, victims of a diminishing customer base and a lack of suitable new scripts for production. One of the major survivors is the handsome Chanhassen Dinner Theatres complex, still thriving in suburban Chanhassen, southwest of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Founded in 1968 as a single 600-seat theatre, a restaurant, and a cocktail lounge, Chanhassen now encompasses four performance spaces. Only the Mainstage, with the largest stage and seating capacity, utilizes traditional dinner theatre seating, with the audience at tables where they are served their dinner prior to the performance, with desserts offered at intermission. The other three spaces are conventional proscenium theatres; their audiences are served dinner in other rooms, then move on to see the show. The Chanhassen provides a welcoming ambiance from the moment the audience enters the wood-paneled lobby areas, with their warming fireplaces and outgoing, friendly staff. Productions are often in for a lengthy run. I Do, I Do ended a legendary 22-year run less than two years ago, and has just been revived for all those who didn't manage to see it the first time around. 42nd Street is just completing a year-long run on the Mainstage, to be succeeded in February by the first regional production of Crazy For You. Each production is cast individually, with auditions announced in the local papers. Some performers are brought in from the coasts, but most of the casting is done locally, and the management, led by artistic director Michael Brindisi, tends to be loyal to performers who have worked previously at the theatre. The program, devoted mostly to musicals with an occasional straight play for contrast, is a mix of Broadway revivals, original revues, and sometimes even a major premiere.

A case in point is the current occupant of one of Chanhassen's stages: Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree, the third installment in Dan Goggin’s successful series at musicals about the Little Sisters of Hoboken. Goggin directed Chanhassen's accomplished mounting of Nunsense ll: The Sequel, and was reportedly so impressed with the talent and facilities available that he decided to stage the premiere of Jamboree in the same locale.

Nunsense Jamboree takes off from a premise no more complex than those that graced its predecessors. Sister Mary Paul, the adorable former amnesiac whose memory recovery in the earlier shows included the realization that she had always wanted to be a country singer, has fulfilled her dream and recorded a country album, “I Could 've Gone to Nashville.” Now, in the company of some familiar and some unfamiliar sisters, as well as the first Nunsense priest. she is on tour to promote the album. The suspense (for want of a better term) hinges on whether or not she really will be asked to that mecca of country music. So the show is basically a concert and a gag fest, poking irreverently immaculate fun at country music, religiously inspired commercial interruptions, the naivete of the sisters, and, of course, the Catholic Church itself. Hoary jokes that would be groaners in another context suddenly become hilarious when delivered by women in wimples. And although Goggin could not be accused of being a great melodist, his tunes are always easy on the ears and well-suited to his literate lyrics. Whenever the book threatens to go on for too long, Goggin is wise enough to toss in a song, either comic or touching, as the occasion demands, even borrowing, if my ears do not deceive me, a couple of the better numbers from his score for the non-Nunsense musical Balancing Act.

As his own director, Goggin sees to it that his material is righteously served, Angela Timberman is a delightfully endearing Amnesia with a powerful vocal instrument that she deploys to maximum effect. Deborah Dei Mastro is brassily amusing as Sister Robert Anne, a "Cowgirl from Canarsie,” Tinia Moulder is sweet and low-down as Sister Mary Leo. the novice about to take the black veil, and Susan Goeppinger is warm and appealingly motherly as the nursing Sister Mary Wilhelm.

The barn-facade set by Barry Axtell, lighting by Paul Miller, musical staging by Felton Smith, musical arrangements by Michael Rice and David Nyberg, and musical direction by Alan Shorter are all expert components of this lively and engaging new chapter in the legendary Nunsense saga. Nunsense lovers are sure to be pleased, and there's a strong likelihood of a multitude of new converts.