Monday, September 18, 2006

Don't Say Things Like That, or They'll Lock You in an Attic in Amsterdam"

"The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun" Theatre at St. Clement's, part of the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival. September 17, 2006

Loosely based on the known facts of the life of Sister Smile, "The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun" interjects the back story of the Belgian nun who recorded "Dominique" and rose to pop fame in the 1960's. Others have charted this path before, such as the 1960's Hollywood whitewash with Debbie Reynolds and Chad Everett, along with an Italian film in 2001 that took a much darker route.

Author Blair Fell penned this story first in a play of the same name in 1996. Paired with Andy Monroe as composer and lyricist, the story is now presented in a musical format, pulling no punches at any target that may willingly present itself, or even mistakenly wander near.

This energetic production, flagrantly directed by Michael Schiralli, is a high energy show and presents the bones of some good work underway.

The premise is that Mr. Berman (Stephen Michael Rondel), a psychiatric patient in an asylum, believes that he was a friend and confidante to Sister Smile during and after her time in the convent of Our Lady of Pernicious and Postulant Wounds. Mr. Berman was also in residence at the convent after ending his career as a cross-dressing Catholic fashion model, still a cross-dresser and nun under the name Sister Coco Callmeismael. The story opens in the asylum with a very well-integrated musical introduction as Mr. Berman begins his flashback in the middle of a showing of the 1966 "Singing Nun" with Debbie Reynolds (film clip and all).

We are quickly taken back in time to meet Jeanine Fou, the soon-to-be Sister Smile (Laura Daniel) on her way home from school. Unattractive and with an unhealthy religious fervor, Jeanine (with her guitar which she's named Sister Adele) sings of life's possibilities - like being a nun and a pop singing star!(Don't Be Afraid, Adele) Magically, Saint Dominique appears and inspires Jeanine to join a Dominican convent to find this happiness. (You Got to Sing, Girl!) Upon arrival at the convent Sister Coco takes her under wing and introduces her to the Reverend Mother Helen Lawson (Kristine Zbornik). When Mother Helen learns of Jeanine's (now Sister Luke Gabriel) goals of singing and pop stardom, she quickly establishes her dominance in the order (Superior).

Jeanine starts to doubt her decision and reflects back to when she told her best friend Annie (Tracey Gilbert) that she was leaving for the convent. Annie, feeling that they were "more" than friends is crushed by Jeanine's decision, but because she loves Jeanine, she accepts it. (I'll Follow You). Annie has her own dream to open a school for unattractive girls with an unhealthy religious fervor. As she looks forward (Welcome to the Rest of Your Life), Annie writes a love letter to Jeanine (Dear Jeanine).

Naturally, the convent is about to hit the financial skids, so Mother Helen calls up Father Lyon (Michael Hunsaker) to help figure out how to raise money. He arrives and discovers Jeanine has written "Dominique" which he knows will be a big hit. Father Lyon was also a Catholic Fashion model's agent before taking his vows and was romantically involved with Sister Coco. As they revive their affair, they work to find a more marketable name for the record than Sister Luke Gabriel (Think!). Unhappy about Jeanine getting too much attention, Mother Helen at first wants to cancel the record, but Father Lyon appeals to her more earthly and material desires. (Loot) The album is released and is a smash hit, money rolling in faster than anyone can count it.

Jeanine is overwhelmed by the success of the album and following performance tour. Mother Helen comes to her aid with pills and liquor to keep her going. (Mother's Here). While drunk and high, Jeanine signs a contract assigning all the profits from the album to the convent. Feeling hemmed in by the convent, Jeanine and Annie reunite. Jeanine wants the freedom to sing on her own terms. Annie hopes that now Jeanine has left the convent, the two of them can consummate their relationship, but Jeanine refuses, offering just a spiritual love. (Welcome to the Rest of Your Life) She's got a new song based on the new birth control pill that will be the center of her new album. With the money from that, she and Annie can open a school for unattractive girls with an unhealthy religious fervor.

When the Pope declares that no Catholic woman should take the Pill, Jeanine (who is still on drugs and drinking)sees her world begin to fall apart. (Jeanine Meets the Media) Coco, who has left the convent as well to be the girl's field hockey coach at Annie's school, shares the news that the Tax Collector has arrived for the income from the first album. (Things Couldn't Get Much Worse) Annie, the optimist, tells Jeanine that whatever happens, they're still together. Jeanine returns to the convent to ask Mother Helen if the convent could pay the taxes, but Mother Helen refuses. (Superior). Jeanine arrives back home and learns that Annie has sold the school to pay the taxes. With nothing left for them, Annie pulls out six bottle of barbiturates and offers to share them with Jeanine, so they can finally be together in the next life. (I'll Follow You)

As Sister Coco, Stephen Michael Rondel carries a large portion of the story-telling in the show. He is experienced in gender travesty, but his Coco comes off a little less than three-dimensional. Some of this may come from the writing because it seemed, at times, there wasn't much for his character to do other than come on and milk a laugh.

Laura Daniel as Jeanine gives a strong performance. Not very tall, and more attractive than the role calls for, she effectively carries Jeanine's arc from dreams to suicide. As Annie, Tracey Gilbert has the strongest connection to her character. When she writes to Jeanine, not knowing where Jeanine has gone, you get a good idea of the love that the real Annie might have felt for the real Jeanine.

As Mother Helen, Kristine Zbornik channels her best Ethel Merman. It's an apt characterization but sometimes borders on caricature. Her first song, "Superior" is terrific. Michael Hunsaker, as Father Lyon and other roles brings a great voice (and a nicely sculpted torso) to the proceedings. Randy Blair, Kristen Beil and Eileen F. Stevens complete the cast, all making excellent contributions in their many supporting roles.

Mr. Fell's book, starts out cleverly and holds up pretty well during a somewhat long first act. He spares no feelings and takes a comic jab wherever he can find it. Jeanine has a fellow nun, Sister Maria who's preparing to be the governess for a widowed naval captain with seven children. Father Lyon has just come from the Monastery of Saint Stephen Edie. Jeanine gets a few of her own quips in "Belgian endive is like life, well-shaped but bitter" and "a an all-girl hotel." When Jeanine tells her mother "I think all people are basically good." Mother replies, "Don't say things like that, or they'll lock you in an attic in Amsterdam." And, it is not without its anachronisms. As Jeanine accepts her Grammy award, we get the Sally Field "you like me, you really like me."

Mr. Monroe's music and lyrics also keep that strong first act going. It's in the second act when the "tragic and horrible" part begins that the story loses steam. The nice touches of integrating music and story that worked so well in Act 1 all but disappear in Act 2. The scenes get longer, and the songs are fewer and farther between. Having heard Annie's letter song in Act 1, I had expected to hear the suicide note in the form of a reprise. It's quite a challenge to try to balance camp/musical comedy with the tragedy of Jeanine's real life. I think had they left the story and returned to the asylum just after the suicide note, it wouldn't have been such a task to bring the energy and humor back up to end the show.

For more information on the show including cast notes and song clips, click here.

No comments: