Holy Cow!

About halfway through Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree, one of the characters turns to the audience after a particularly unfunny line and bellows, "Hey, folks, it doesn't get much better than this."

She isn't kidding. Dan Goggin's second sequel to Nunsense, his far-too-frequently produced 1985 off-Broadway hit, is either the best example of uninhibited tastelessness I've ever witnessed, or the worst waste of reasonable talent ever to cross Phoenix Theatre's stage. And that's saying something.

The show's premise was only mildly amusing in its first two installments, Nunsense and the cunningly titled Nunsense II, in which perky Sister Mary Amnesia (a country-western singing nun who's lost her memory but not her ability to annoy crowds with twangy tunes and homespun stories) performs slightly bawdy, never funny material that's supposed to be amusing because it's issued from beneath a wimple. Watching wacky nuns dance and sing vaguely irreverent songs and perform in senseless skits may have been naughty fun back when Hayley Mills and Roz Russell were doing it in the Sixties, but today nothing--not even transubstantiation--can turn this holy hokum into something heavenly.

This time out, Sister Mary is touring the nation with her singing sisters and a handsome priest, promoting her new album and playing to crowds who, once they witness this shameless pile of claptrap, are apt to become atheists. Low points include an auction of bogus religious artifacts and a string of angry phone calls from Mother Superior, which we're made to listen to even though none of them ends in a punch line. A good portion of the show is taken up with recaps of what took place in the previous Nunsense programs, from which this story borrows much of its material, like the routine by a potty-mouthed puppet who sings a vaguely sexy song with lines like ". . . then he took her home to Bangor."

How clever.
Musical-comedy doyenne Debby Rosenthal must be kicking herself for coming out of semiretirement to reprise her role as Sister Mary Amnesia, whom she's played in each of the previous installments. It's been a few years since Rosenthal set foot on a stage and, while time hasn't been kind to her upper register, she's still pleasant to watch, even when she's appearing in garbage.

Still, watching Rosenthal impersonate a retarded child isn't much fun; her brainless bride of Christ routines add up to a big waste of her talents and our time. I hope Rosenthal will continue to work, despite the unpleasant response this wretched pile of hoo-ha will undoubtedly garner.

The qualities that recommend Nunsense Jamboree would fit on a collection plate: The show has only one act (though it's such a terrible act that it seems to last three hours), and it features a performance by Michelle Gardner, whose presence on any stage always results in something pleasant. Here, she performs the closest thing to a memorable tune, "Growing Up in Brooklyn," in which she explains how she became a nun while paying tribute to Barbra Streisand.

Goggin has clearly used up all the Catholic jokes he knows. Most of the numbers in Nunsense Jamboree are secular stupidities about things like geography and bouffant hairdos, with barely a nod to their supposed Nashville roots. These tepid tunes are busted up by some sinful one-liners ("What do you call a sleepwalking nun? A roamin' Catholic!") and punctuated by flat-footed physical humor and the inevitable audience participation hoo-ha (I'd like to see an ordinance passed that would prevent dragging reluctant theater audience members onstage for a Polaroid with the cast, a tacky device I've seen in one too many local productions).

There's no backstage help here. The singers are miked inadequately and so inexpertly that they sound like participants in a karaoke competition. Connie Furr's cowardly costume design involves a lot of spray-painted cowboy boots and dime-store rosaries; and all that can be said for James Hunter's wobbly cardboard-and-poster-paint scenic design is a string of novenas, in hopes that it won't collapse during the show's next performance.

Goggin seems to think that references to divas like Streisand and Cline will distract us from the limitations of the would-be women he's created to entertain us here. The numerous references to previous chapters in his parochial opus are meant to remind us how much fun we presumably had watching them. But I'm too busy trying to forget this gaseous evening of theater to recall its forebears, and am praying long and loud that there will be no more sequels to this sanctimonious Nunsense nonsense.


Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree continues through Sunday, March 7, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela