The five nuns of Crofton Downs Convent were desperately trying to pull together a talent show to raise funds for Sister Julia’s terrible mistake. When a soup gone wrong results in 52 dead nuns, the convent falls very quiet indeed, not that we are given any time to sympathise or reflect on the potential consequences. With 48 bodies already buried and a new TV and Playstation purchased, the nuns are left out of pocket. Their only option? To push for funds from us, the audience, to help cover the cost of disposing the remaining four bodies.
The funky hot-pink set of Grease frames the stage and instantly transports you to the musical world. Unfortunately, this is only referred to once in the first ten minutes as we discover the nuns are borrowing the school hall, which is currently hosting a year 10 production. There was the potential for references to the well-known musical, but the backdrop just felt odd as it was never used to aid the theatricality of performance. I can excuse a small budget for set, props and costume, but with a bar on wheels that only moved once we relied heavily on the lighting to offer a change in space (and escape from the hot pink).
Rutherford and her cast have added quirks to root the production in Aotearoa. The audience happily jumped on board with learning a chant aimed to impress Mother Superior Sister Regina, played by Jane Keller. Keller’s role fits like a glove, as respect for this lady is never forced. While knee-high kicks might not be her strength, she holds the space with poise and authority that convinces us she really is Mother Superior. Within her first few moments on stage she demands a spotlight, and not once over the next two hours did she look down at her feet or let you lose confidence in her. Paired with perfect diction and vibrato Keller has the audience sold within minutes.
Bronwyn Turei, who plays second-in-charge Sister Robert Anne, is the standout performer. With an incredible vocal range and charisma that stretches on for miles she nails every note, wink and gag. She had the audience whooping and cheering as she bellowed out her solo ‘Holier than Thou', transporting us out of Gryphon Theatre straight to Broadway.
Sister Mary Amnesia, played by Tania Parker, served as the butt of many jokes between the nuns. After a knock to the head by a cross she had no idea how she arrived at the convent or where she came from. Parker had the audience in stitches with her confused glances but happy-go-lucky shuffle around the stage. As the only character without a detailed back story, her brief glimpses of clarity had the audience egging for her memory to return.
Rebecca Tate plays the youngest of nuns, and her characters aspirations to become a nun-ballerina were as sweet and sincere as her pitch perfect voice and pink slippers. We get a glimpse into the standard morning for Sister Mary Leo and learn that prayers in the form of dance are acceptable by the lord. We are reminded that dreams are okay if your intentions are pure.
It was clear that time and effort was spent in fine-tuning a strong vocal performance and simple but effective choreography in the space at hand, hats off to Rochelle Rose for that. With a pinch of ballet, a touch of hip hop and a brilliant tap dance number, Rose utilised every cast members strengths and cleverly covered up any weakness with a classic box step and jazz hands sequence.
While the energy of the performers never lacks and the corny punchlines deliver with confidence, one could not help but feel that laughing became a habit (no pun intended) rather than an outlet of sincere enjoyment. Almost every opportunity for an inappropriate religious joke is taken. Some of which had the audience in stitches and really did prove the nuns were there to "raise some hell". Others, such as Sister Robert’s (Rochelle Rose) solo performance of turning her habit into well known characters, like Pippi Longstockings, felt gimmicky and a way to buy time while the cast caught their breath backstage.
The audience felt delight at every chorus scene, where the cast was at its strongest. Breaking into four part harmony with your classic broadway dance moves to match, did help to tick the box of an entertaining musical. However, I couldn’t help but feel the solos all began to sound the same with the basic backing of the keyboard. So while the songs were cleverly written and well delivered, the lack of variation in the accompaniment left little contrast between numbers.
Michael Nicholas Williams’ talent is undoubtable as he carries the musical support on his own, flicking pages of music between songs. Yet, his skills felt underutilised as he was lost in the dark at the back of the stage, accompanied only by the tinnie drum beats preloaded in the keyboard. Had Williams been side of stage playing a piano with one other supporting band member (a guitarist or even a bongo would do) it would have lifted the whole standard of the show. However, it did remind me of a school hall concert, which I suppose was the intention.
The calibre of talent on stage keeps Nunsense alive; the core problem lies in the fact the plot lacks any real substance. Each character had clear intentions, some torn between their dreams and reality, others searching for an answer that might never be found. Yet I craved a deeper connection with the characters and wonder if this was skimmed over in rehearsals or the sole focus was placed on nailing the musical and comedy elements.
If you are after a light hearted entertaining evening, Nunsense wouldn't go amiss. You will undoubtedly have a laugh and bathe in the cast’s shining talent. Musical-enthusiasts, leave your judgements at the door, and on your way out remember you now have a new handful of nun jokes and basic catholic facts you may not have known before.
Audiences can catch Nunsense now at the Gryphon Theatre until Saturday 10 February. You can find out more about the show or purchase tickets here.