Star Tribune - 12/04/96

-Mike Steele

'Nunsense 3' tasty fun with a twang

The Little Sisters of Hoboken, those gag-a-minute nuns from"Nunsense," are back among us in their third incarnation: "Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree," the world premiere production of which opened Friday at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. This is not an event that brings Christmas cheer to theater critics, trained as we are to deal with nuances of characterization and the dramaturgical densities of plot and dramatic structure.

Characterizations? Get real. Plot, structure? Ha! The drama critics' code practically demands that "Nunsense" creator Dan Goggin be thrashed by stinging barbs.

But, well, these ditzy nuns are endearing in their innocent giddiness. Goggin does know how to toss off a snappy tune, with a twang in this version. And--let's get this out of the way right non --"Nunsense" is critic-proof. It doesn't much matter how much curmudgeonly bile we pour into a review, "Nunsense" lovers are loyal and plentiful. (Chanhassen's artistic director, Michael Brindisi, said ticket sales soared out of sight as soon as the show was announced; he calls it "a gift from Gog.")

In this version, Sister Amnesia has broken loose and recorded a country-Western record "I Could've Gone to Nashville" and is now, along with some of the sisters and the first ever "Nunsense" guy, Father Virgil Trott, on tour promoting the album. That's about it. The only dramatic tension is whether she will get to Nashville, which, from a critical point of view, isn't up there with murdering your father and marrying your mother or the other great dramatic themes.

No matter. It's fun seeing the gal behind the habit acting up a bit. His lyrics in the play's first song, in which he humbly admits the show doesn't have helicopters of chandeliers, not only heads off criticism but reminds us that a lot of plays sillier than this one have been huge hits lately.

Like past "nunsense" shows, this "nunsense Jamboree" is a collection of goofy stories, tunefully accessible songs and acres of gags tenuously linked. Neither dramatic viability nor, on occasion, even rationality explain some of the links, but "Nunsense" fans revel in the illogic of it all.

What's it all about? The endearing thing about these "Nunsense" shows is that they know what they're all about. There are no pretenses. The] only goal is to amuse and they clearly do. And Goggin will do anything to get that laugh. For instance, Virgil Trott is the brother of Sister Mary Leo and, back in Mississippi, they were part of the Trott Family Singers. All of which is an elaborate buildup to Amnesia's wide-eyed intro, "We've got the Trott." Like that.

The jokes are groaners, but good of type: What do you call nuns at the Sistine Chapel? Ceiling fans. Then there are the fast, facile throwaway lines (Goggin's good at these) like, "Oi vey, Maria" or"she's a son-of-a-gun of a nun." There's an auction in which the prized possessions are a Santa Lu Chia Pet and a real Bible belt.

Goggin directs this one like a "Hee Haw" show with characters popping out of doors to toss off wisecracks often a propos of nothing remotely related to the show. One nun emerges from a storm cellar, looks at the sky, yells, "Dorothy, Dorothy!" then slams the door shot. Then again, these nuns may be closer to Oz than anywhere else.

The cast is superb, top to bottom, with Deborah Del Mastro the most outrageous nun. Tinia Moulder the most endearing, Susan Goeppinger the most responsible and, thus, the most flustered, Angela Timmerman as Amnesia the most wide-eyed and Richard Long as Father Trott the most charming.

A five-person orchestra nicely handles Michael Rice and David Nyberg's snappy orchestrations with musical director Alan Shorter on keyboards especially capturing the goofy, upbeat spirit of the whole show.