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Theater Review: In ‘Nunsense,’ the Sisters Release Their Inner Divas

From a secular point of view, one of the biggest stumbles the Catholic Church made in recent years was going after American nuns for their supposed “radical feminism” and moderate views on abortion and gay marriage. Whatever their feelings toward the Vatican, people love nuns. Their legendary warmth and concern for the downtrodden have gone a long way in preventing people from writing off the scandal-ridden church altogether.

It doesn’t hurt that modern media have portrayed them taking faith seriously, even if they don’t take themselves as seriously. In this regard, Nunsense, the long-running Off-Broadway musical that is Northern Stage’s current production, is more than a good-humored and entertaining evening of theater. The Little Sisters of Hoboken perform an important public service, acting as goodwill ambassadors for their beleaguered faith. We know all the Catholic jokes out there, these women imply, and we’re in on them 100 percent.

The Little Sisters of Hoboken in Nunsense are in shockingly high spirits, given the dire straits they’re in. While several of their order were out playing bingo with a group of Maryknoll sisters, Sister Julia Child of God was innocently serving up a fatal dose of botulism via a batch of bad vichysoisse to the rest of the Little Sisters — “kind of like the Last Supper,” as wisecracking Sister Mary Hubert (Charis Leos) puts it. They’ve managed to pay for burial of most of the deceased sisters by creating a series of greeting cards. But before the last four could be entombed, worldly wants got the best of Sister Mary Regina (Sandy Rosenberg), aka Mother Superior, who went out and bought a VCR. Now, with four sisters still stored in the convent’s freezer, “the Jersey Board of Health has sent its final warning,” and the surviving sisters have scrambled to put together a variety show in the Mount Saint Helen’s School auditorium to raise money for the burials.

Each of the sisters ostensibly took a vow of humility when she entered the convent, yet every one of them has an inner stage diva that’s dying to break free. The standout in the cast is Lisa Raggio . Her Sister Robert Anne comes from a rough Brooklyn background and is both fun-loving and world-weary. Raggio beautifully imbues her character with a lot of heart, and an “I’ve seen it all attitude.”

The indefatigable Leos makes for a good-natured and cherubic Sister Mary Hubert, but really gets to shine in Holier Than Thou, the show-stopping finale. The number was made for Leos’ vocal range and propensity for stealing the spotlight. It reminds the Northern Stage audience why she’s the theater’s go-to performer for robust alpha female roles (last season, she was Annie’s Miss Hannigan and Chicago’s Mama Morton).

As Sister Mary Amnesia, the nun who’s forever in search of her memory after being struck on the head by a falling crucifix, Amanda Ryan Paige emerges as the show’s strongest vocalist. She does, however, have a habit of playing up her character’s gullible charm to the point where it’s a tad annoying. When she’s not demanding the spotlight or telling stories of her tightrope-walking past, Rosenberg’s Mother Superior hysterically henpecks her surviving sisters, and shows her comedic range by sniffing a bottle of the inhalant Rush. And Emily Stockdale brings an innocent, youthful charm to the role of the novice Sister Mary Leo, who won’t let her sisterly status get in the way of her ballet dancing dreams.

Nunsense is strong when a couple, trio or the entire ensemble is on stage. The show tends to drag in scenes where a sister is performing a monologue with no musical accompaniment, and there were times during Thursday night’s preview performance when the band, led by Joel Mercier, overcame the performers’ vocals.

Yet Nunsense is a crowd-pleaser, and a hearty close to Northern Stage’s 16th season. You can expect a lot of gentle ribbing from the nuns, whether or not you’re Catholic, and their heavenly hijinks may make a disciple of you yet.

Nunsense at Northern Stage continues through May 19 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com.