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Published: Thursday, 4/27/2006

Weary 'Nuns' franchise cheats talented cast, audience of laughs

Rosemary O Brien plays Reverend Mother in the Toledo Repertoire
Theatre production of Meshuggah-Nuns!
Rosemary O Brien plays Reverend Mother in the Toledo Repertoire Theatre production of Meshuggah-Nuns!

Where there were chuckles, there could have been belly laughs. Where there were smiles of amusement, there could have been guffaws. As a musical comedy, Meshuggah-Nuns! could have been more.

The fifth incarnation in Dan Goggin's Nunsense franchise, which runs through May 7 in the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, celebrates the similarities of the Jewish and Catholic faiths as five nuns join with an actor to perform in a cruise-ship variety show.

These are Reverend Mother (Rosemary O'Brien), who is generally easygoing but occasionally has to curtail her troops' hijinks; Sister Mary Hubert (Janna Ravel), the head of novices, who believes she deserves to run the convent; Sister Robert Anne (Amy Scott), who hasn't completely tamed her New York attitude; and Sister Mary Paul (Cindy Bilby), better known as Sister Amnesia because (in the original show) she was bonked on her head with a crucifix and lost her memory.

Jeffrey Albright plays Howard Liszt, the star of Fiddler on the Roof, who can't perform that show because the rest of the cast is down with seasickness.

Highlights of the show include "Contrition (A Song of Guilt)," performed to the tune of "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof; "If I Were a Catholic," done to the tune of "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler; "Matzo Man," a tribute to the Village People; and a Laugh-In-type scene in which various nuns pop into view through windows of the set and toss jokes at Howard.

If there is one element that causes Meshuggah-Nuns! to be less than hilarious, it's that writer Dan Goggin is wearing his franchise thin.

He builds on jokes from the first shows, expecting his audience to know them, such as the Reverend Mother's hatred of a hand puppet. There are in-jokes, such as her use of a toy clicker to keep her nuns in line. If you didn't go to parochial school or catechism in the 1950s and '60s, would you cringe at that sound?

The Jewish connection suffers as well. The references to the Catskills and the Borscht Belt badly date the humor.

Director Jim Norman keeps the pace rapid-fire, which also helps to hide the utter absence of depth, as do a multitude of visual gags, including the unique footwear of each nun and the sight of feathered boas over their habits in a tribute to Sophie Tucker.

O'Brien, Scott, and Ravel are reprising their roles from a past Rep production of Nunsense, and they wear their habits like a second skin.

Bilby fits in well as the absent-minded but sweet Sister Amnesia, and Albright proves a fine foil for the women.

His duet with Sister Robert Anne, "A Love Like This," is a surprisingly tender, poignant scene.

Someone once said, "Give me lemons and I'll make lemonade."

In Meshuggah-Nuns! the sympathetic, talented cast takes some gossamer-thin material and comes up with a pleasant, if unmemorable, evening of entertainment.

"Meshuggah-Nuns!" continues through May 7 in the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, 16 Tenth St. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays as well as May 4. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and May 7. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for seniors. Information: 419-243-9277.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6130.

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