The Salem Community Theatre's production of "Meshuggah-Nuns: The Ecumenical Nunsense," with book, music and lyrics by Dan Goggin, is another delightful evening of family-friendly silliness from the creator of the "Nunsense" franchise.
Director-choreographer Sarah Durham and musical director Ed Phillips have assembled an excellent ensemble cast to bring the latest adventures of the Little Sisters of Hoboken to vibrant, lovable life.
This time around, Mother Mary Regina and Sisters Hubert, Robert Anne and Amnesia are taking a "faiths of all nations" cruise when the cast of the scheduled entertainment, a production of "Fiddler on the Roof," becomes ill, except for Howard Liszt, the actor cast as Tevye. The sisters volunteer to put on a variety show with Howard, giving him and the sisters an opportunity to reflect on their respective faiths and cultures in various comic and touching ways.
Connie Baer steals every scene she's in as the sweet, lovable and uproariously funny Sister Amnesia, interacting charmingly with the audience and capturing perfectly the character's childlike innocence and unique thought processes. Baer also has a fine voice, which she puts to excellent use in the country parody, "My Ship."
Speaking of fine voices, there is none finer than Kari Lankford's. She plays the streetwise but soft-hearted Sister Robert Anne with just the right touch of tough-girl swagger. Her big solo, "I'll Find a Song to Sing," takes her and the audience on a fast-paced journey through every known musical style from opera to pop to jazz, and everything in between. This is the most challenging song in the whole score, and Lankford executes it flawlessly.
Julie Benner, who plays Sister Mary Hubert with many subtle nuances not found in the script, is another fine vocalist whose sheer power and presence overcame a recalcitrant wireless mike that was muffled as the result of an enthusiastic opening-night pie-throwing scene right out of an old Three Stooges two-reeler.
Like the pie-throwing, most of the jokes and bits of stage business in "Meshuggah-Nuns" are older than the combined ages of the cast, crew and audience at any given performance, but they're all performed so perfectly by the ensemble that you won't care.
Vicki Rossi is hilarious as Mother Mary Regina, the tough-as-nails leader of the Little Hoboes (the order's nickname). This veteran actress not only demonstrates flawless comic timing, but also matches the younger cast members dance step for dance step. In addition, Rossi does a spot-on imitation of Sophie Tucker in the song, "My Fat Is My Fortune," and performs some two-person stand-up comedy routines with Howard that Stiller and Meara would envy.
John Zamarelli brings heart and soul to the character of Howard, with a professional-quality singing voice that makes us want to see him play Tevye, providing that the licensing agency for "Fiddler on the Roof" lets SCT do the show next year. (The group was supposed to do it this summer, but the rights were withdrawn at the last minute, prompting the choice of "Meshuggah-Nuns!" as a substitute.)
Zamarelli is especially effective in his comedy routines with Rossi, and in "A Love Like This," a touching duet with Lankford, in which Howard sings about his love for his wife, and Sister Robert Anne reflects on her own love relationship as a bride of Christ.
Brett Cowden does as much as he can to bring the ship's purser, Mack N. Tosh, to believable life, despite the fact that the part is criminally underwritten. Cowden basically creates a likable, eccentric character out of whole cloth, building on the barest hints given in the script.
Musical director Ed Phillips has a neat cameo as the ship's Catholic chaplain, Father Potchky, giving a virtuoso performance on the accordion in "The Potchky Polka."
"Meshuggah-Nuns!: The Ecumenical Nunsense" will be presented again this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call ahead for reservations at 330-332-9688. I give this production my highest recommendation for the whole family.
Guest reviewer Charles Calabrese, a resident of Wintersville, OH, has been writing performing arts reviews for print and broadcast for more than 30 years.