‘Nunsense’

Don’t argue with the nuns. They have time on their side, if not a higher power.

"Nunsense" is a silly cabaret musical that has made $500 million and spawned six sequels. It celebrated 25 years last summer with a New York revival, and those betting against singing-nun success in Las Vegas might get their knuckles rapped with a ruler.

And yet, I didn’t need a clip-on tie at the Las Vegas Hilton (a Catholic school-survivor buddy once told me its breakaway feature was a good nun defense). This professional staging comes years after community-theater versions in the suburbs, and I expected a show that’s been so popular for so long to be a little stronger at its core.

Instead, "Nunsense" is such fluff that it lives or dies on the quality of the performers. Far from coasting on the strength of Dan Goggin’s book and songs, the actors work hard to sell them.

Fortunately, Las Vegas is in good hands here. Director Nancy Gregory assembled a cast of local pros who launched it quickly. Time will surely lead to a faster read on the personality of each sister: No small challenge when they’re wearing habits that leave them really just their faces to work with.

For those who missed it all these years, the premise puts a quintet of "habit-forming" sisters onstage to celebrate "the humor of the nun." They’re raising money to bury four late members of their order, who are on ice in the convent freezer after eating some bad mushrooms.

The benefit isn’t such a tall order. Two sisters (three, if you count a late-inning twist) have show business ambitions, and the others aren’t short of ham in the pantry.

The Mother Superior (Diane Ellis, who has the perfect age and face for this) tries to rein in the dancing feet of the novice (a radiant Robin Berry Vincent) and the Broadway belting of the understudy (Kathryn Arianoff). Sister Hubert (Michelle Johnson) is always the voice of judgment, reminding the Mother Superior she shouldn’t have bought the big-screen TV before all the nuns were buried.

The most endearing of the quintet turns out to be Sister Amnesia (Janien Valentine). Her attempt to remember who she is and how she got there drives one of the scant few plot points. She also gets to make the best faces and do some ventriloquism.

(The program doesn’t match the actors to characters; scheduling appears to shift some of the five roles within the company of seven).

There’s a little "I Love Lucy" in the Reverend Mother’s giddy discovery of what seems to be amyl nitrate, and a lot of Catholic jokes: A recipe for "Mary Magdeline tarts"? "I bet they’re easy."

It all keeps the sisters on their feet, and the live pianist and drummer busy keeping up with them. Still, I didn’t feel the forward motion of "Forever Plaid," another cabaret hit in this niche.

"Nunsense" seems to take its sweet time and repeat itself (songs telling us what we’ve just been told), and this in a version trimmed down to 95 minutes (including a funny opening film) from the usual two acts.

But let’s be clear. Stuffed with puns and groaners though it may be — "Sister Julia, child of God" — it’s Stephen Sondheim compared with "Menopause The Musical," a previous Shimmer Cabaret tenant moved to the Luxor. Now they are competitors targeting the same retirees, Red Hat ladies and anyone else looking for theatrical escapism in the afternoon cocktail hour.

"Menopause" is a complete brain-check, punching buttons of familiarity by setting parody lyrics to old disco songs. "Nunsense" at least asks its audience to keep up with original tunes and word play such as, "It was a difficult transition, for the missioner’s position is up to now the only one we knew."

That’s no sin at 4 p.m. Order a stiff drink and atone later.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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