“Nunset Blvd” and roast turkey go perfect together at Cornwall
On a recent Tuesday afternoon 100 or so middle-class Baby Boomers, including a busload from a Cleveland retirement village en route to Firekeepers Casino, descended on Cornwell’s Turkeyville U.S.A. in Marshall, Mich. off I-69. It’s a one-time turkey farm cum RV park with a restaurant that boasts the best turkey sandwich in the world, an ice cream and fudge shop, an arcade, a gift shop full of tchotchkes, and a dinner theatre that puts on a full-length show nearly every day of the week after serving its audience an enormous home-style turkey dinner.
For a particular crowd, it’s about as good as it gets. And producer of Top Hat productions Dennis W. McKeen delights in catering to that audience. Before the show, he described it as a family place that aims to entertain. “We tried doing art, but the audiences don’t like it,” he said, adding that the closest they came to it was “Steel Magnolias” two years ago.
Currently, they’re putting on “Nunset Boulevard” one of playwright Dan Goggin’s seemingly countless spinoffs from his original “Nunsense,” a notoriously audience-pleasing series about the Little Sisters of Hoboken, a group of kooky, irreverent nuns getting up to various shenanigans. In this particular version, they’ve booked a gig at the Hollywood Bowl only to arrive and find out it’s a bowling alley, not the legendary amphitheater. They all develop stars in their eyes. One of them auditions for a film role as a nun, and, well, that’s about it for plot. Since “Life should be a musical; it doesn’t need a plot,” as far as the nuns, and Cornwell’s audience—are concerned.
So, the script is shamelessly weak, as are most of the Nun sequels Goggin has penned. But the show delivers what it promises.
Even with lousy material, the five competent actresses who play the nuns manage to make a room full of retirees full of tryptophan not only stay awake, but actively respond with laughter and back talk to eye-roll-worthy jokes. In reference to multiple crates of milk, one of them asks “Pasteurized?” And the other replies “No, just up to my boobs.”
Since they’re covered in habits and the script offers so little, they must differentiate themselves with their voices, movement, and faces alone. None of the actresses are big, bold, or unique enough to be outstanding, though by the second act they start to seem like distinct characters and show off terrific improvisational skills in “The Price is Righteous,” a “game show inspired by the Holy Spirit” during which the house lights come up and audience members step on stage and receive prizes, such as a St. Peter sea monkey that grows in water and potentially presents “a choking hazard.”
That’s about as bawdy as things get, folks. This is a family show.
Jenn Poarch’s plastic face and astounding soprano makes Sister Robert Anne come alive, and she drives the show with high energy even when the audience isn’t terribly lively. Kristina Huegel embodies Sister Leo especially well physically and with grace. Gail Betts Trader’s Mother Superior is effectively stern in voice and constantly peering over the top of her glasses. Adrienne Bergeron’s sweet-faced Sister Amnesia and Samantha A. Matthews’ nondescript Sister Hubert are difficult to differentiate, but they both have lovely singing voices.
Together, the entire ensemble creates beautiful harmonies and a big sound thanks to music director Denise Minter. Though the accompaniment is canned and many of the musical numbers are schlocky ballads or a hybrid country-pop light, the women’s voices are stunning when given a chance in big ensemble numbers such as “The Hollywood Blondes,” in which each of the nuns appears as a glamorous starlet from the silver screen.
The tired riffs on Hollywood past are relentless, and yet they draw grateful acknowledgement from the audience. In one bit, there’s a barrage of one-liner references to “In the Heat of the Night,” “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Terminator,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Casablanca,” “Princess Bride,” and “Gone With the Wind,” among others.
Technically, the nuns are easily seen and heard. The colorful shifts in light give the simple set a little personality though they’re not terribly meaningful. Jennifer Poarch’s choreography is also simple and effective and Director Dennis W. McKeen creates a nicely balanced stage with his blocking.
As The Minneapolis Star Tribune pointed out, a critic is useless at a Nunsense show. And as McKeen himself notes, this isn’t a show that aspires to be art. It’s a particular kind of entertainment for an audience the folks at Cornwell’s know and love well.