‘Meshuggah-Nuns," the show now running at Off-Broadstreet Theater weekends through August 20, takes the prize for the most eye-catching title around. The title is an obvious yoking of two cultures, two beliefs, Jewish and Catholic. "Meshuggah" means "crazy" in Yiddish. Nuns, as we all know, have taken a vow of chastity in the Catholic Church and follow a religious life of service or meditation. The nuns in "Meshuggah-Nuns" are the Little Sisters from Hoboken. They wear habits but sing and frolic and cavort around as if they didn’t.
The cabaret show, by Dan Goggin, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, is part of Goggin’s Nunsense series. Goggin received the 1986 Outer Critics Circle Awards for "Nunsense" for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Music. The first "Nunsense" cabaret show debuted in a small club in Manhattan in 1983. This present show, "Mashuggah-Nuns, the Ecumenical Nunsense," premiered in 2002. It is set on board ship, the S.S. Golden Delicious, the "apple of the Eden Line." The nuns are on a "Faiths of all Nations" world cruise. All here is ecumenical and full of appreciative good cheer to each other, Catholic or Jew. The production is well-done and great fun – even when you are not laughing out loud, you are smiling with amusement.
Catholics and Jews admit, in the show, that they have one thing in common: guilt. (Oh, that apple!) The show has no plot, per se, but rather it is comprised of short, humorous, self-contained segments and jokes. Call it "summer lite." There is, however, a back story: After a seven-day-long storm at sea, there is only one member of the cast of the cruise’s scheduled entertainment – the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" – who doesn’t get sick, and that is Howard Liszt (no relation to composer Franz Liszt). So he and the four sisters put together a "nunsense" musical, a fun-filled song and dance show interspersed with jokes and short, unconnected acts. (There are one-liners about the Catskills, the old one about the Jewish husband, even a pun on Jesus, as Tevye sells "Cheeses of Nazareth,")
The five-member cast sings with strong, lusty voices and dances with verve and obvious enjoyment. They are all superb: Sister Robert Anne (Michelle Russell), Reverend Mother (Lillian Israel – yes, that’s right), Sister Amnesia – she’s had memory problems (Angela Sytko), and Sister Hubert (Lauren K. Brader). Clad in nun’s habits with only their faces showing, it is easy to mix them up but no matter. Only the Reverend Mother wears a distinguishing cross. Howard, who plays Tevye in the sick-out production of "Fiddler" is wonderfully played by Robert Thick, who also designed and directed the show. Trained as a singer and actor, he has performed in over 100 theater roles.
Many of the clever lines and jokes are a Catholic-Jewish melding. Two of the songs Howard (as he is referred to in the show, never as Liszt) sings are take-offs on two of Tevye’s songs in "Fiddler" – "Contrition," a take-off on "Tradition," and "If I Were a Catholic," a take-off on "If I were a Rich Man." Some songs are classic Jewish tunes such as "Hava Nagila," to which the characters dance the hora. The nuns and Howard perform a brief but admirable copy of "Fiddler’s" wedding dance, balancing milk bottles (here of plastic) on their heads while dancing and even folk-style deep knee-bending.
Some of the jokes play on English-Yiddish language differences, exploiting the fulsome sounds of Yiddish. Howard, as Tevye, sings "If I Wore a Habit, a Schmata It Would Be." He goes on to explain "potchkya" (a potch is a gentle spank on the rear end, or it can mean fooling around aimlessly with things); then the nuns and Howard dance the Potchky Polka (from the Pizzicato Polka). The sisters and Howard sing "Three Shayna Maidels" (beautiful maidens). But not all jokes exploit a Catholic-Jewish outlook. Sister Amnesia, about to assume a magician’s role, to pull objects out of a hat, says to Howard, "Help me turn some tricks." One number ends with the cast – Catholics and Jew -in a toast, "La Chaim!"
There are jokes about food. Howard mentions that Jews can eat no ham; the sisters announce that Catholics once could eat no fish on Fridays. Howard questions whether there is a prohibition on ham on Jewish rye. There are some real groaners: for bagels and lox (smoked salmon for the uninitiated), one of the sisters brings metal locks.
Some songs are clever take-offs on now or then popular songs. "Matzo Man" obviously comes from "Macho Man." And "Don’t Rock the Boat" from the song of the same title. "Anchors Away" as sung here takes little from the original tune.
There is a tender, touching moment as Howard and Sister Anne sing "A Love Like This," he singing of his wife, she of Jesus.
Julie Thick designed the ever-varied choreography performed with verve and energy, Ann Raymond the costumes. Both efforts deserve applause. The show plays off American culture, too. One can only stare, in the Sophie Tucker number, at the black and gold dress, topped with yellow boa and wide hat, as she prances around. The red boas and white feathered head gear for the Mae West number, "Come Up and See Me Sometime," are also fun and inventive. Ruth Rittmann gets credit for costumes for the "Fat" number and for the large, comical, grey, stuffed cloth squid with legs.
Kenneth P. Howard, musical director, is on the piano; Don Lebentritt plays the reeds; and Jon Cooper handles percussion. The live band is on stage, behind the performers.
In one number here’s the famous "Fiddler" push cart stocked with Catholic and Jewish wines (add puns) and those cheeses. One bit of upbeat advice from the show is that "laughter kills all ills." The one somber point is the Fiddlerspiel Chorus, with audience joining in. Supposedly the fiddler is on the roof to remind us that life "doesn’t last long, so cherish every moment of every single day."
This zany, madcap, silly, often uproarious, fast-paced show is funny and fun, bringing smiles to a summer night.
Meshuggah-Nuns, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, August 20. $23.75 to $25.25. 609-466-2766.