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SAY IT IN YIDDISH: "Tevye," aka Howard (Robert Thick), teaches the Reverend Mother (Lillian Israel) colorful Yiddish expressions ("No one will expect it from a nun."), as Judaism, Catholicism and show biz come together to hilarious effect in the musical comedy Meshuggah-Nuns!, playing at Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell through August 20.

"Nunsense" Meets "Fiddler on the Roof" in "Meshuggah-Nuns!": Song, Dance, and Religious Jokes Flourish at Off-Broadstreet

Donald Gilpin

Those Little Sisters of Hoboken just keep right on singing, dancing, and telling jokes twenty years after the musical comedy Nunsense became a big off-Broadway hit. The original show has been produced around the world and has inspired the writer-composer-lyricist Dan Goggin to create a slew of spin-offs: Nunsense 2: the Second Coming; Nunsense 3: the Jamboree; Nunsense A-Men!; Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical; the most recent Nunsensations: The Nunsense Vegas Revue; and, currently at Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell, his 2002 creation Meshuggah-Nuns!: the Ecumenical Nunsense.

There seems to be no limit to the potential musical comedy material here and no limit to the desire of audiences to enjoy the humor, songs and wild antics of these Marx Brothers from the convent. Mr. Goggin continues to concoct outlandish situations as backdrop for these crowd-pleasing shows. There's not much plot, no big concepts, no lavish spectacle, and no intellectual activity required - only the most implausible pretext to put these characters together in a situation where they can perform their music, dance, and comedy.

Meshuggah-Nuns!, playing through August 20 under the able direction of Robert Thick, puts the fun-loving showbiz nuns on a cruise ship, the S.S. Golden Delicious, on the "Faiths of All Nations Cruise," where the scheduled entertainment, a performing company of Fiddler on the Roof, has conveniently fallen ill to sea sickness. The nuns must step in to assist the actor playing Tevye (Mr. Thick) and put on an impromptu show. The result is a hilarious collision of Catholic and Jewish language, behavior, values, and understanding.

Mr. Goggin as writer-composer and Mr. Thick as director, producer, and leading performer share a keen dramatic sense of how to keep their audiences laughing and entertained. The score is tuneful, the lyrics are clever, and the dialogue is bursting with Jewish jokes, Catholic jokes and puns. The Off-Broadstreet Company makes the most of this material with its impressive musical skills, deft comic timing in word and action, and ability to involve the audience directly and indirectly in the proceedings. There are plenty of opportunities for audience participation - singing along, clapping and a magic show where volunteers are actually invited on stage and receive prizes - and the more silly, implausible, and mindless the shenanigans of this Jewish-Roman Catholic collaboration, the more the audience seems to enjoy itself.

The five seasoned performers are all strong, vocally and dramatically, and Mr. Thick has directed adroitly to keep the comedy sharp, the action clear and the pace brisk. A three-piece band - Don Lebentritt on reeds, Jon Cooper on percussion, and Kenneth P. Howard directing from the keyboard - provides a polished, professional and finely balanced accompaniment to the singers and the action.

"Meshuggah" (a Yiddish word meaning "crazy") is indeed an appropriate description for what happens when the wacky humor of these four sisters of the cloth combines an array of Catholic jokes with some first-rate Borscht Belt Jewish humor.

The four nuns and Howard (Tevye") quickly find their common theme in the first act number "Contrition," a spoof on "Tradition" from Fiddler and a humorous song-and-dance commentary on how guilt rules both religions.

Other first-act highlights include Howard's teaching the Reverend Mother (Lillian Israel) to "Say It in Yiddish" ("when an English word won't do"); Sister Amnesia (Angela Sytko), backed up harmoniously by Sister Hubert (Lauren K. Brader) and Sister Robert Anne (Michelle Russell), pursuing a career in country music with the tuneful "My Ship" ("I may have missed the boat, but my ship keeps coming in."); Howard's response in teaching the three younger nuns "The Potchky Polka," a klezmer song-and-dance number concerning the virtues of procrastination; the Reverend Mother's lavishly costumed spoof of Sophie Tucker, "My Fat is My Fortune" - complete with glittery dresses and extravagant feathered hats and boas, all worn over the traditional nuns' habits; and an over-the-top, act-one finale that tunefully mocks every nautical disaster movie ever created.

And what shenanigans could Mr. Goggin and Mr. Thick possibly have left for act two? Plenty. Ms. Russell and Mr. Thick briefly change the tone with a moving romantic ballad, "A Love Like This," as he recalls falling in love with his wife as she reflects on her relationship with her God and her religion. The parody then comes fast and furious, with "If I Were a Catholic" and "Fiddlerspiel" taking off on Fiddler on the Roof, "Matzo, Matzo Man" providing a colorful spoof of the Village People, and Sister's Amnesia's irreverent puppet (Sister Mary Annette) presenting a hilarious takeoff on Mae West, "Come Up and See Me Sometime." Howard and the Reverend Mother deliver a comical interlude with their presentation of the duty free cart, featuring an abundance of puns (e.g. "cheeses of Nazareth"), alcohol jokes, and Jewish mother shtick. Ms. Russell again displays her extraordinary vocal talents with a hot gospel number, "I'll Find a Song," and the show wraps up with the production number "Rock the Boat," one more exhortation to laughter and high spirits: "You've gotta make waves. You gotta rock the boat before you can laugh."

Costumes by Ann Raymond contribute a wild array of aptly eccentric accoutrements superimposed on the nuns' habits. Mr. Thick's brightly colorful shipboard set design, with aptly placed portholes and life preservers, serves the action well and the atmosphere here. Choreography by Julie Thick is fluid and effective.

The Nunsense phenomenon all started more than twenty years ago when friends gave Mr. Goggin a nun's habit and a mannequin as a joke. He started creating comical greeting card photos, one of which pictured the mannequin nun on a motorcycle with the message: "Hell, You're No Angel." Mr. Goggin took the greeting card jokes one step further and created a nun-themed cabaret show in 1983. Nunsense grew out of that cabaret show, and the singing and dancing nuns with their comedy routines have been building momentum ever since. Bob Thick and his first-rate ensemble carry on this meshuggah tradition with flair. Off-Broadstreet's Meshuggah-Nuns! is a hot ticket. Reserve early.

Meshuggah-Nuns! will play at Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell through August 20, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Desserts are served from one hour before curtain time. For information call (609) 466-2766.



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