The Clinton Area Showboat Theatre kicks off its summer season with two similarly themed shows running in repertory, and I caught a double-feature of Nunsense and Altar Boyz on Saturday - a marathon day of Catholic humor. The pairing is a good choice, with each offering a self-aware musical featuring jokes related to Catholicism. And while the scripts push the boundaries of Christian decency, neither crosses over into completely irreverent territory, each maintaining a respect for religious roots and having fun with the shows' core faith, rather than at its expense.
There are obvious differences between the productions, however, particularly regarding the demographics to which they skew.
Nunsense, with its corny jokes and bawdy behavior, seemed to please Saturday afternoon's audience, which was made up mostly of people retirement-age and beyond. The story finds five of the Little Sisters of Hoboken putting on a variety show to raise money to bury four of their fellow nuns, who died after eating accidentally poisoned vichyssoise. This musical comedy is filled with clerical humor, much of it on the naughty side, and silly numbers about dancing through morning prayers, a disastrous leper-colony ministry, and the search for Sister Mary Amnesia's true identity, among other topics.
I recall finding Nunsense funny when I first saw it - or perhaps one of its six sequels or three spinoffs - more than a decade ago. Now, however, it seems a bit dated compared to the sharper humor of more recent musical comedies ... including Altar Boyz. It is what it is, however, and judging by the reactions of the Showboat audience, people still enjoy its cornball humor that's all-too-often worth little more than a chuckle, if not a groan. And director Maggie Ellsworth and her cast, understanding the silliness of it all, certainly have a good go at it. Ellsworth doesn't attempt to make the show more than it is; she doesn't overstage it, or try to take what's supposed to look like an amateur stage show to a level of professional excellence. The charm of Nunsense, after all, lies in its unpolished, cheesy nature.
Cheesiest of all is Karen Stephan, who delightfully over-animates Sister Mary Amnesia, the nun who can't remember her real name after being hit on the head by a crucifix. The role allows Stephan to showcase a wide array of vocal deliveries - from silly-sounding, high-pitched tones to alto ones, from operatic singing to a country twang - and attacks each style with aplomb. As second-in-command Sister Mary Hubert, however, Nattalyee Randall brings down the house with her solo "Holier Than Thou," the best song in the show. Randall's vocal stylings here help cover the multitude of sins that precede this number, ending the production on a high note at least an octave above the trite comedy that makes up the better part of Nunsense.
Rounding out the five-actress cast: Laurel Decker softens the stern nature of Mother Superior Mary Regina and is most entertaining when she feigns being high after sniffing some sort of olfactory drug; Erica Vander Velde brings the requisite chutzpah to the role of Brooklyn nun Sister Robert Anne, mixing in a smiley-faced charm; and Nicole Ferguson is delightfully inept in her dance solos as Sister Mary Leo, the novice who dreams of being the world's first ballerina nun.
Still, the nuns of Nunsense don't hold a candle to the boys of Altar Boyz, mostly due to the material with which they're working. The Altar Boyz are a Catholic boy band performing the final concert on their "Raise the Praise" tour; the musical Altar Boyz, meanwhile, is produced as such, with the fictional group's hit songs performed one after another. It's a satire of both the boy-band craze and sometimes hokey contemporary Christian music - with songs about "Jesus calling on my cell phone" or "that something about you, girl, that makes me want to wait to have sex with you" - and the comedy of Altar Boyz is much sharper, and subtler, than the hackneyed humor of Nunsense.
Director/choreographer Patrick Stinson, here, creates a realistic boy-band stage show, complete with high energy and impressive dance moves, and also incorporates concert stage effects (including smoke) and images projected on a rear screen - a mixture of religious clip art and pictures of Donald Trump, Jim Carrey, and Mr. Spock.
The five cast members blend quite well, vocally, and create a fake professional pop ensemble that's as good as a real one. They also bring individual flavor to each of their portrayals. Eric Chambliss is confident, and rather dreamy, as Matthew, the lead singer of the band. Bello Pizzamenti's attitude makes clear that his Luke is the tough boy of the bunch. Brian Bowman, as Juan, gets to play up a Hispanic accent and, in one number, demonstrate fascinatingly fast flamenco-style arm movements, but also has moments, through his over-emphasized wailing, that are hysterical and tender at the same time. Joseph Feldman seems to ground the group with his straightforward, confident turn as Abraham, the Jewish member of the band. And Brian Cowing makes his Mark's sexuality clear through his hand gestures and physicality, yet without making him a gay caricature.
While each actor is worth watching for the individualizing mannerisms they bring to their characters, none is more captivating than Cowing. Sure, he's got the most fun role to portray, but it's his consistency that makes Mark so delightful; without overplaying, the actor - cocking his head here and snapping his wrist there - delivers one giggle-inducing moment after another. This is also kind of a shame, since the other actors deserve some of the attention Cowing pulls from them, but as a group, the performers still help create the most polished production I've yet seen on the Showboat stage. And the summer season has only just begun.
For tickets and information, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.