Holy Pap! Burlesque Nuns!

There’s a website where you can answer a few questions and determine precisely what your belief system is. I got 100% for Unitarian Universalism, 98% for Neo­Paganism, and only 8% for Roman Catholicism.

Gardner and Wife Productions claim they debated the theological correctness of NUNSENSE with prominent Catholics before deciding to Malaysianize and stage this runaway hit musical in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps they forgot to consult the Neo-Pagans who are bound to find this cutesy apology for old-style Papism effete and irrelevant, if not actually offensive. Neo-pagans rarely get offended in any case; they merely go ho­hum and shake their gnostic heads at the way passive consumers continue to be bamboozled by the pap industry even in the new millennium).

Dan Goggin, creator of the off-Broadway hit musical comedy, NUNSENSE, was schooled by nuns and subsequently became a seminarian himself. After the colossal failure of his 1970s Broadway musical, LEGEND, Goggin aided his own financial recuperation by producing corporate extravaganzas. He also came up with a popular series of greeting cards featuring mildly risque nunnish humour and this eventually evolved into the award-winning NUNSENSE, which has since become a multimillion dollar industry with a whole series of sequels.

It figures. Jesus is sandwiched between two Marys: a “virgin” and a “prostitute.” Combine the archetypal polarities and you get a “bawdy nun.” Put five high-kicking, glue-sniffing, pun-spinning, dancing-and-singing nuns on stage and you’ve got yourself a moneyspinner. They don’t even have to be particularly attractive or talented, since the whole thing is presented as fundraiser to bury four other “blue” nuns whose dead bodies happen to be in cold storage until enough money is collected for their funerals.

But as luck (or showbiz savvy) would have it, Gardner & Wife found themselves the perfect cast. Shanthini Venugopal is a tried and tested trooper in the vaudeville tradition and she’s a fantastic jazz singer and actress to boot. As Sister Mary Regina, Mother Superior of the Little Sisters of Kampong Pandan, Shanthini’s well-honed talent shines through like a lighthouse. Her earthy professionalism and stage presence anchored the entire production firmly in the realm of the watchable (I particularly enjoyed her Pope impression in a chef’s hat). She was ably aided by feisty dancer­singer Suzan Manen as Sister Mary Hubert and vibrantly abetted by winsome stage veteran Mary George as Sister Robert Anne.

Add to that the mellifluous mezzo-soprano voice of Cheah Siew Oui as Sister Mary Amnesia and the tantalizing appeal of terpsichorean Zoe Christian as Sister Mary Leo – and even the hardest-core neo-pagan in the audience cannot help but be charmed and somewhat entertained – despite opening night problems with the radio mikes that gave me the sensation I was watching it all from the other side of the sound barrier.

An important member of the cast was musical director Holland Jancaitis (a youthful and diminutive Presbyterian imported all the way from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) whose fluency with the score and keyboard skills gave the production a bigger sound than two musicians might be expected to generate (he was efficiently accompanied by percussionist Clarence Ewe).

Goggin’s songs go down easy but aren’t particularly memorable and his script is an impressive catalogue of classic nun jokes (What do you call a sleepwalking nun? A Roamin’ Catholic. Why don’t nuns take drugs? They already have a habit.) The house went wild every time the nuns formed a chorus line or got into a bit of burlesque. It’s really quite bewildering. If a stand-up comic told the same jokes he or she would be dismissed as a bore; but don a habit and you’re applauded as “funky.”

Regardless of what I may have to say about commercial crassness (whether applied to religion or theatre), the marks will keep lining up at the pearly gates (and some will even fork out RM80 in the hope that they might catch a bonus glimpse of nuns’ knickers!)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Goggin’s inspiration for NUNSENSE arrived in the form of a nocturnal visit from the Vatican’s Men In Black – who silently handed him a fat envelope with encrypted instructions to write a hit musical comedy that will help regain a mass audience for the Pope. After all, any religion (or theatrical offering) with a ribald sense of humour can’t be all bad.

First Published: 28.08.2001 on Kakiseni

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