Review: The all-too cheery 'Sister Robert Anne's Cabaret Class'
"Sister Robert Anne's Cabaret Class" is the latest to arrive here in Dan Goggin's series of shows in the "Nunsense" vein, in which nuns are 1) comical; 2) performing, and 3) snarky. But in "Sister Robert Anne," you have to wonder whether a nun is at all essential to the evening.
The show runs at Society Hill Playhouse, one of the franchise's most successful venues – "Nunsense" was booked there for five weeks and stayed for 10 years. But while "Nunsense" is true to the pun in its name, with a delightful blend of nonsense and performance, "Sister Robert Anne" has lots of performance and little of the fun.
This is no fault of the big-voiced Christine Mild who, with her pianist, Father Sam (Sam Willmott), work with a surfeit of lame material. The show (and the nun Mild is asked to play) has both too much and too little to make "Sister Robert Anne" more than a mildly interesting cabaret act.
On the too-much side, Sister's character is constantly ingratiating; even when Mild begins to show a little of the stern quality of a stereotyped nun, she immediately backs away: "No, no, I'm kidding," she'll say, or other words to that effect. The litany here appears to be don't be anything but nice, and it goes for the generally pallid material and its delivery.
At intermission, the audience is asked to write questions on index cards for Sister Anne – who actually sets about teaching a mostly serious cabaret class without funny or critical comments on the style of cabaret. I'm not sure she looked at the index cards people filled out (I really wanted to know what cabaret songs you choose while in eternal damnation), because so many of the cards she read led to musical numbers that were on her set-list, or to an obviously scripted answer. If you promise us spontaneity, you'd better deliver – particularly when you promise it as a nun.
This brings me to the too-little side: authenticity. Christine Mild's costume is perfect, but her persona is the reverse of the "Nunsense"-like self-reverential or self-mocking nun, who is a woman of God and authority and whose notion of mercy is skewed. Sister Anne's character is more suited to an animated happy chipmunk, with an unbelievable story about being a young Brooklyn criminal and answering the calling at a sort of Catholic-run reform school. That history would make some sense if Sister Anne ever reveals her hard-nosed original side. And even her decided Brooklyn accent fades whenever she sings.
You don't need a nun for this sort of material: generic cabaret-styled songs about givin' 'em the old razzmatazz, or even the nicely sung and composed song about growing up in the pre-Vatican-II Catholic Church and now missing the Latin and the iron-clad rules. (A school-girl car thief from Brooklyn was probably no scholar of the Aeneid or the catechism, in any case.)
The best number comes in the second half, when Sister Anne sings a funny Christmas ditty with a puppet, Sister Marion-ette. That's because the character of the puppet is the sort of nun who makes "Nunsense" shows work. She's well-meaning and mouthy at the same time, and those conflicting traits give the number a bit of much-needed tension, which the rest of the show could use.
"Sister Robert Anne's Cabaret Class" runs through Jan. 5 at Society Hill Playhouse, Eighth Street between Lombard and South. 215-923-0210 or www.societyhillplayhouse.org.