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Sisters have a habit of leaving 'em laughing

The biggest laughs in "Nunsense" come at the end of the first act when the no-nonsense Mother Superior accidentally gets high.

The scene is a hit when community theater actors do it, but it is even more hilarious as performed by Sally Struthers in the 25th national anniversary tour now at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

The "All in the Family" actress had the Rogers Theater audience in stitches Friday night as she giggled up a storm, stumbled around the stage and finally lay on her stomach on the ground pretending to be the whale in "Free Willy."

One of the most frequently performed musical revues, Dan Goggin's "Nunsense" offers lighthearted silliness and vaudeville-style humor. While I find many of the jokes corny and tedious, I am clearly in the minority. The show and its numerous sequels, including the holiday-themed "Nuncrackers" and all-male "Nunsense A-Men," are an international phenomenon with productions in 21 languages.

In "Nunsense," the Little Sisters of Hoboken put on a talent show to raise money to help bury four nuns who are being stored in their school's cafeteria freezer. The nuns died when they were accidentally served tainted soup by Sister Julia Child of God.

The irreverent tone of the talent show is set with the opening song "Nunsense is Habit-Forming." What follows is an eclectic show of ballet and tap, ventriloquism, country and gospel singing and more. A lively onstage band of nuns and a priest provide the accompaniment.

Struthers leads the crew of singing and dancing nuns with a stern hand and gives disapproving looks to her charges who get into mischief. A former tightrope artist, Mother Superior loves the chance to soak up the spotlight.

Jeanne Tinker shows off a huge vocal range and lots of nervous energy as Sister Mary Amnesia, a nun who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. As Sister Mary Hubert, the mistress of novices, Bambi Jones offers wry commentary and slyly needles Mother Superior about some of her dubious choices.

Kathryn Kendall injects some heart into the show as Sister Robert Anne, a reform school graduate who was inspired to change her ways after she came in contact with the nuns. The most playful nun, Sister Robert Anne impersonates Princess Leia and Pocahontas by twisting her habit into their hairstyles. Stephanie Wall is sweet and graceful as the ballet-dancing Sister Mary Leo.

The songs are chipper and have cute lyrics but are not memorable. You'll be hard-pressed to remember a tune as you leave the theater. The action plays out on a single charming school cafeteria set designed by Barry Extol.

Because it's such a simple show, "Nunsense" probably would have been more effective in the 444-seat Foster Theater. It gets a little lost in the 1,252-seat Rogers Theater.

But for much of the audience at Friday night's performance that didn't seem to matter. For those in the mood for silly fun, "Nunsense" hit the mark.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.

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