'The Musical Produced'
Richard Allen - Producer - The Barnstormers
- Music & Lyrics by Dan Goggin
formed The Barnstormers theatre group about seven years ago as a one-off project
to raise funds for the development and improvement of the Barn Theatre in Oxted,
Surrey. We have been staging annual productions since then and continue to raise
much needed funds for the theatre. The Barnstormers has no committee or membership
as such, but instead draws on the considerable pool of amateur theatre talent
in our area. Our aim is to produce musicals and plays of the highest quality possible.
the success of our previous production of Arthur Miller's classic play 'The Crucible'
(see 'The Play Produced' Volume LXII January 2006), I thought it was about time
for something completely different and, following a recommendation from a friend,
decided to have a look at the Dan Goggin's musical comedy 'Nunsense'. I vaguely
remember seeing the original West End production back in 1987 and recall it being
great fun, but I rediscovered the show relatively recently via a copy of the script
and original cast CD. The DVD of the 1993 Off-Broadway production also proved
a useful resource.
its small cast (of five women) and one fixed set, 'Nunsense' was exactly the sort
of smaller scale show that we were looking to slot in 2006 before our much larger
planned production of 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' touring to the Minack Theatre, Cornwall
next year. The show fitted well into the relatively intimate space of the Barn
Theatre and I quickly fell in love with its infectious music and quick-fire comedy.
The fun and frolics of 'Nunsense' also provided the perfect antidote to the dramatic
and serious subject matter of 'The Crucible'.
I have always believed that choosing the right production team is as
important as casting the show. Martin Patrick was always going to be my first
choice as Director. Comedy is Martin's forte having successfully directed and
appeared in numerous comedies, pantomimes and variety shows.
Skipper has a considerable reputation locally as Musical Director and I was very
pleased when he agreed to join the team. There is a substantial amount of music
to learn between five cast members, much of it in harmony, and I was confident
Ian would get the very best out of our cast.
door to the Barn Theatre is our local dance school run by Jolene and Sophie Kiddle.
As choreographers, Jolene and Sophie, were able to bring with them considerable
experience as professional dancers and tackle with confidence the show's wide
range of dancing styles.
PLOT & CASTING
'Nunsense' is set within the convent of the Little Sisters of
Hoboken in New Jersey. Sister Julia, the convent cook, has served vichyssoise
soup causing 52 of the sisterhood to die instantly of botulism. Before all of
the deceased sisters were buried, Reverend Mother Superior bought the convent
a new home entertainment system (we updated it from the 'VCR' in the script),
resulting in them not having enough money to bury the four remaining dead sisters
who are being stored in the freezer! In order to raise enough money to bury these
sisters, a few of the surviving nuns put on a riotous revue packed with hilarious,
show-stopping song and dance numbers. It's this hilarious review that forms the
premise for 'Nunsense'.
is the smallest cast I've worked with on a musical and it soon became clear that
the vocal and acting demands placed on each individual would be considerable.
There would be no room for hangers-on, as there's nowhere to hide in a cast of
five. We were therefore looking for five talented 'all-rounders', who would need
to gel together into a close-knit team.
Mother (Sister Mary Regina) is the head of the convent and the lead of the piece.
She controls proceedings throughout the evening (except when high on a 'certain
substance') and has the greatest amount of dialogue, including several long one-to-one
sections with the audience. The part requires a strong singing voice and someone
with natural confidence and self-assurance, not to mention good comic timing.
Teresa Skinner was a perfect fit for us and her vocal talents were such that we
decided to go with the option (given in the script) for Reverend Mother to sing
the final number in the show, 'Holier than Thou'.
Mary Hubert is second in command at the convent, although she thinks she should
be number one. There is a healthy rivalry with Reverend Mother and at times the
two of them work as a double-act culminating with their number 'Just a Coupl'a
Sisters'. Fiona Steel has been a Barnstormer since our early days and is confident
singer and performer.
Palmer is one of our most talented local comic actresses and we could immediately
see the potential for her in the role of the sweet, naïve and forgetful Sister
Amnesia who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. Sister Amnesia has
a variety of memorable comic moments including working with the audience during
the quiz, a ventriloquist act with the nun puppet ('Sister Mary Annette') in 'So
You Want To Be A Nun' and belting out the country & western number 'I Could've
Gone to Nashville'.
character that needs to work one-to-one with the audience is Sister Robert Anne.
She is the streetwise nun who's regularly at odds with Reverend Mother and consequently
starts the show as the understudy. She grabs her chance at the beginning of Act
Two to show the audience some of her 'habit humour', creating 'other nuns' by
twisting and rolling her veil into comical shapes, and then moves on a little
later to sing her big number 'I Just Want to Be a Star'. Cathy Longhurst is an
experienced musical theatre actress who knows how to sell a big number, but can
also sing from the heart as required in 'Growing Up Catholic'.
Mary Leo is the ballet-mad novice nun who dreams of becoming the first nun ballerina.
Elizabeth Skinner was able to put across the character as young and impressionable
and her fine singing voice was very welcome both as soloist and in the ensemble
work. She also took on the considerable task of learning ballet pointe work in
a matter of only six weeks.
As with any musical I look at, I have to love the music to stand any
chance of liking the show. 'Nunsense' starts strongly with a great opening number
and finishes on a high with the wonderful gospel finale 'Holier than Thou'. There
are always those show numbers where you can instantly see their potential on stage
and for me 'Nunsense' was full of them. There are classic vaudeville numbers such
as 'Turn Up the Spotlight' and 'I Just Want to Be a Star', comedy numbers including
'So You Want to Be a Nun' and 'I Could've Gone to Nashville' and the close harmony
Andrews Sisters style number 'Drive In'. The show is not without light and shade
and Act Two opens with Sister Robert Anne fondly remembering her school days in
'Growing Up Catholic'.
of the ensemble numbers include a fair amount of harmony singing (with up to five
parts) and we therefore had to set aside an above average number of music rehearsals
to ensure the girls felt completely confident with holding their own lines. There
are certainly some wonderful harmony moments that deserve to be heard - in my
opinion not done full justice on the original cast CD. We found the most challenging
songs were 'A Difficult Transition' for its sheer length and word learning, the
three part close-harmony 'Drive In' and 'So You Want to Be a Nun' where Sister
Amnesia has to switch rapidly between her own voice and the puppet's voice.
sound processing was used sparingly, however reverb was added to create a 'church
feel' for the plainchant at the start of the show and for the backing choir in
'Growing Up Catholic'. A bigger reverb was used to give the impression that Sister
Amnesia was up on a huge concert stage during 'I Could've Gone to Nashville'.
is scored for a small band of four players - Piano, Synthesiser, Reeds & Drums/Percussion.
Our Musical Director played piano and so only three other musicians were necessary.
We decided to locate the band off-stage right to maximise the playing area on
stage and to acoustically isolate them. This allowed us to effectively balance
the band against our five performers.
Set Designer, Bruce Reed, made full use of the space available to create the Mount
St Helens School theatre on the Barn stage. The rear of the stage was dominated
by raised staging bordered with banisters, with two sets of steps leading down
to the larger open area. The rear flats had three stained glass windows set within
them. Positioned around the stage were various pieces of set supposedly left over
from the student's production of 'Grease'. These include a 1950's style counter
with diner stools set to stage right, another truck set centre stage representing
on one side the back of a 1950's car (complete with flashing indicators and brake
lights) and on the other a car seat.
was also a bedroom scene (dressed in pink) to stage left. These trucks were moved
by cast members and there was no need for any stage crew to go on stage during
the performance. To far stage left and right adjacent to the proscenium arch were
two 'Catholic' shrines (complete with their own lighting) and fixed at the top
of the proscenium arch was a 'Grease' sign (which could also be illuminated).
The script calls for a jukebox and exercise cycle to be located on stage. The
exercise cycle caused us no problems to find, however our enquiries into hiring
a jukebox established it would cost in excess of £300 for the week, this for what
amounts to a five second gag in the show. We decided it was not worth it and made
use of an old fashioned record player instead.
removed the front curtains, so the stage was visible to the audience at all times.
The nuns start both Acts in amongst the audience, and we thought that by removing
the curtains this gave the whole production an appropriately informal feel and
supported the overall impression that the audience had stepped into the real Mount
St Helens theatre.
show lighting moved between general stage lighting and bold colourful lighting
used in many of the musical numbers. Our Lighting Designer, Carolyn Rowley, gave
us a palette of strong pinks, blues, purples, reds and yellows with which to flood
the stage. Good use was made of the Barn's two follow spots and pin spots fixed
along the front of the stage were used to give the impression of a freezer door
opening during 'We've Got to Clean Out the Freezer'. Various specials were used
to highlight the front of stage, stage left bed area and to pick up the soloist
and choir during 'Growing Up Catholic'. A glitter ball was brought in for 'Turn
Up the Spotlight' and 'I Could've Gone to Nashville' and a star gobo enhanced
the number 'I Just Want To Be A Star'. For the final gospel number, 'Holier than
Thou', disco lights were installed behind each stained glass window and above
the audience and chaser lights were fixed around the proscenium arch, front of
stage and stained glass windows for a spectacular finale.
five performers wore traditional nuns habits and the writer's notes at the back
of the script are quite specific about the various elements that make up the complete
nuns attire. The only differences between the five nun costumes are that Reverend
Mother wears a cross around her neck and Sister Mary Leo has an all-white veil
denoting her novice status. All the nuns should look pristine at all times and
great care was taken to secure down veils and collars to avoid them flying around
during the dance numbers. We also found it necessary to split the habits on one
side to just below the knee to allow the nuns more freedom of movement during
the more energetic dance routines. Pockets were added to cope with a variety of
nuns 'accessorised' their basic habits with a selection of hats and other costume
items. We used glitter hats and canes in several of the dance numbers, we gave
Reverend Mother a feather boa during 'Turn Up the Spotlight', Sister Robert Anne
had her 'Convent Miranda' hat and Sister Mary Leo her 'Dying Nun' hat. Three of
the nuns wore Andrews Sisters hats for the 'Drive In' close-harmony number. Sister
Mary Leo also appears in pink dressing gown and slippers at the start of her 'Benedicite'
EFFECTS & PROPS Possibly the most unusual prop in the show is the nun puppet,
'Sister Mary Annette'. Sister Amnesia performs a ventriloquist act and duets with
the puppet during 'So You Want To Be A Nun'. We contacted Pady Blackwood, the
maker of the original puppet used in the off-Broadway production, and he agreed
to make us a brand new puppet, which we now own and have available for hire.
more specialist props include the 'Baking with the BVM' book, featured in the
Act Two cooking scene, complete with a picture of the 'Blessed Virgin Mary' in
her cook's hat and apron! Sister Amnesia awards a variety of 'Catholic' prizes
during her quiz, including St Christopher Motorist Prayer Cards and St Francis
figurines. The latter coming direct from a souvenir stall in Rome!
REQUIREMENTS Immediately following the 'Drive In' number in Act Two the script
calls for a slide show presentation culminating in a rather revealing picture
of Reverend Mother. We decided to take this whole idea a little further and spent
a day down in Brighton filming our nuns 'home video'. A hysterically funny day
was had by all, with our nuns in full costume running up and down Brighton beach,
riding the dodgems and trying their luck in the amusement arcade! The video was
filmed and edited by Matthew Patrick and was back-projected on to a drop-down
screen during the show.
Barnstormers always look for the very best from their production team and cast
and this production was certainly been no exception. I am immensely proud of our
production team, technical team and cast for rising to the challenge. The quality
of the production and its justly deserved applause will stick in my mind for a
long time. For more information about this production and The Barnstormers, please
visit our website at www.thebarnstormers.org.