No Divine Comedy
Meshuggah Nuns is the kind of show that seems to have no real reason for being. It's inoffensive and even amusing in spots, but it also feels like something created for the sole purpose of filling up time on stage. And in a world full of musicals with witty scripts and beautiful and sophisticated songs, I don't understand why any company would waste time on it.
The premise: Four nuns are taking a "Faith of all Nations" cruise, and a production of Fiddler on the Roof is planned. The ship runs into a great storm; all of the actors except Howard Liszt, who plays Tevye, are too ill to perform. So Liszt and the nuns team up to improvise a medley of jokes, songs and magical tricks. That's it for plot. There are a lot of Jewish-Catholic jokes, many of them pretty standard, and there's also a blizzard of puns. Periodically, the audience is exhorted to clap or sing along, and this they good-naturedly do. The songs are deliberately derivative; several of them are takeoffs on songs from Fiddler. "Contrition" parodies "Tradition," and I think you can guess the tune for "If I Were a Catholic." Later, there's a parody of "Macho Man" ("Matzoh Man"). But in almost every case, once you've recognized and laughed at the joke, the follow-through lacks originality and sizzle.
The Country Dinner Playhouse production is tight and clean, and the cast is so talented that they almost manage to pull the evening off. The puns are excruciating, as when Sister Mary Paul confuses the word "lox" with "locks." When Liszt explains to her that lox is a kind of smoked fish, she wonders why anyone would smoke a fish. But the cast is filled with so much playful good humor that these horrors often seem momentarily funny. When a pun falls completely flat, the speaker shrugs it off with élan. Martin Ruben is a versatile performer who knows how to hold a stage and can be funny or touching as needed. He has a fine singing voice. Wearing feathers and an outrageous silver dress, Wendelin Harston pulls off a terrific Sophie Tucker impersonation, full of sass and spirit in the number "My Fat Is My Fortune" -- the song with probably the sharpest lyrics we'll hear all night. Brenda Faatz's dopey, innocent and energetic charm does much to keep things percolating. Jan Waterman mines humor from the little she's given to do, and Heather Fortin Rubald is a poised and appealing performer. Although the sound system distorts voices, and Harston, whose powerful, melodic singing doesn't need the help, is overmiked, it's clear there are some beautiful voices in the cast. Rubald's lovely soprano is wasted on the vapid "I'll Find a Song to Sing," while Harston, with energetic support from the rest of the cast, manages to make a strong finale out of "Rock the Boat." But someone should really give these ladies some real music to interpret.
There's a mild charm to this production, and at a time when religious issues have never seemed more difficult or divisive, Meshuggah Nuns does offer a small, risk-free message about tolerance.
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