Chyrel Miller joined us on “Arts News” to talk about Springfield Little Theatre’s new production of an old favorite, the comedy-musical-cabaret show “Nunsense,” which she has directed. Performances are scheduled May 6-23 live and in-person at the Landers Theatre, 311 E. Walnut, and available each night as an online stream. The show features book, music, and lyrics by Dan Goggin.
This is actually the fourth “Nunsense” at LT, Miller said. “We’ve done it twice before as ‘Nunsense,’ and then the third time it was done as one of the takeoffs of ‘Nunsense.’ But this one is going back to the original writing of ‘Nunsense,’ which actually was created in 1953!” (So says Dan Goggin, who created the “current” version of the show in 1985, which has logged more than 5000 performances worldwide.)
Referring to ‘Nunsense’ as a “cabaret show” should be a hint that it’s not your standard “book” or “storyline” musical. It’s the story of five nuns in Hoboken, New Jersey—their order is called “The Little Sisters of Hoboken”—who put on a variety show at Mount. St. Helens High School as a fundraiser... “to help them bury the last four dead sisters that are stuck in the freezer because Mother Superior spent the rest of their money on a 3D HD television, and the health inspector is right around the corner now,” according to Chyrel Miller. The backstory is that the convent’s cook, “Sister Julia, Child of God,” accidently poisoned 52 of the nuns with her recipe for vichyssoise. And the remaining nuns have decided that the best way to pay for a proper burial of the victims is to put on a variety show.
Obviously, the original show did not include an HDTV, but as Miller said, the show has been “updated—we even added a few updates of own here in 2021. But (the show) lives and survives. And it’s a really strong script.” But, she added, “the audience does need to know that it is more like a cabaret show with 16 musical numbers”, not to mention a lot of opportunity for improvisation and ad-libbing.
“We have five ladies and an understudy, and they have a script that we would LIKE for them to follow. But as they get moving, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't,” admitted Miller. And with a good deal of audience participation, she said, “it becomes even more improvised. So it's like six stars who are stand-up comedians trying to finish a show.”
There is, in fact, an audience quiz during each performance, emceed by “Sister Amnesia,” who acquired that named because a crucifix fell on her head, causing her to lose her memory. “And we’ll ask you (as audience members) questions, and all of the answers are in one of the songs. So you have to listen to the songs very carefully. And we do hand out prizes.”
Later in the show, as one of the nuns’ fundraising schemes, they attempt to sell Sister Julia-Child of God’s cookbook—without having proofread it first—when they discover that her vichyssoise soup recipe is included, which causes “chaos”, as you might expect.
During the variety-show numbers, the audience learns a lot of backstory about the other nuns in the show, including why they joined the convent. The Mother Superior, for instance, was once a circus tightrope walker; there’s a streetwise nun from Brooklyn named Sister Robert Anne “who can take care of the car—or she can strip it,” said Miller. Then there’s Sister Mary Leo, a novice nun, is a wannabe ballerina who “is constantly trying to dance, but she’s very frustrated because Mother Superior will not let her wear a tutu instead of her nun’s habit.” And yes, there is dancing in “Nunsense,” everything from ballet to tap.
Director Chyrel Miller has what she calls a “very wide-ranging cast” for this production. Sister Leo is Sisilia Shaffer, who has been in several Landers productions. Sister Robert Ann is played by Jennifer Eiffert, who grew up here, lived and worked in New York for a time, and returned to Springfield during the pandemic. Sister Mary Hubert is Dusty Thomas, originally from Dallas, who will become the theater teacher at Glendale High School next year. Sister Amnesia is Jillian Lazzuri, a freshman musical theater student at Missouri State University, who came to Springfield from Atlanta, Georgia. Director Chyrel Miller said Lazzuri will make her Springfield stage debut in this LT production of “Nunsense.”
This is her first premiere on stage either at state or on Springfield. “She is a student of Paula Patterson's who was the original Amnesia in ‘Nunsense’ (at Little Theatre),” Miller said. “So Paula sent her to us and has been helping her out. And what a wonderful thing that is.”
Another SLT newcomer plays Sister Mary Regina, the Mother Superior. Cheryl Miller called Unia Kiima “our jewel. She is from Uganda; she and her family are music missionaries from Uganda. And they have performed in Singapore and Thailand and Britain, worldwide. She and her husband were brought here to take over a church in Springfield. She has three children that are involved in the education program at the Landers Theatre, and her children encouraged her to audition for ‘Nunsense.’ And she knew nothing about the show, (but is) a fabulous Mother Superior,” with a “beautiful sort of Jamaican-British accent” that offers a new twist on the character. “She's had to learn so much about our culture and about the manners of acting on stage. She actually has a Facebook live podcast that she does daily for spiritual involvement.” When Chyrel Miller watched Kiima’s podcast she exclaimed, “Oh, there's my Mother Superior. Look at that! And so we put all these personalities together, and they have grown together”
We must also mention Kris Langston, who Chyrel Miller called “a mainstay at Landers Theatre and the school (The Judith Enyeart Reynolds School of the Performing Arts).” Langston is the understudy—for the entire rest of the cast—and had to learn the entire script of the show. “And she, if any of our nuns got ill, is ready to go on for any of them, which is a huge job. And we actually have included her in the first act finale song called ‘Tackle That Temptation With the Time Step.’ And she's also in the finale, ‘Holier than Thou,’ a very large and rousing spiritual, complete with tambourines.”
Parker Payne is Musical Director for “Nunsense,” and Chuck Rogers designed the single set. “We only have one set, and we’ve used every nook and cranny that Chuck has given us,” said Miller. Hannah Duff returned to Springfield from New York and provides sound design for the show. And Eli Cunningham is in charge of producing the live streaming video. “We have tried to include improvisation and interaction even with our live streaming audience,” added Miller.
“Nunsense” opens Thursday May 6 at the Landers Theatre. Performances, both in-person and online, are 7:30pm Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:00pm Sundays through May 23. There is also a single Saturday 2:00pm matinee on May 22. Tickets for socially-distanced live attendance at the Landers range from $24 to $34; the live streaming option costs $34. Call the Landers box office at 869-1334 or visit https://www.springfieldlittletheatre.org for tickets.
Director Chyrel Miller concluded our interview by saying, “This time there will be lots of surprises and lots of fun, and some updates in the middle of it. And five fabulous actresses.” Well, six, counting Kris Langston!