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Laughs, chills and music ahead for theater's new season

Cast members , from left, Sandy Hardy Meadows, Lindsey Stewart, Suzanne Unger, Whitney Scanling and Karen McNally reherse a scene from “Nunsense.” Theatre Albany will present this production beginning Friday.

Cast members , from left, Sandy Hardy Meadows, Lindsey Stewart, Suzanne Unger, Whitney Scanling and Karen McNally reherse a scene from “Nunsense.” Theatre Albany will present this production beginning Friday.

ALBANY — Theatre Albany is launching its 80th season with a wisecracking spiritual comedy that literally draws members of the audience into the performance.

The theater opens its new season Friday with “Nunsense,” a five-woman musical comedy that owes its heritage to — of all things — greeting cards.

The plot revolves around the Little Sisters of Hoboken, who are staging a performance at Mount St. Helen’s School to raise money for a cause dear to their hearts: the burial of four residents of the convent that had run a leper colony on an island near France.

“Their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God — there’s a comma after Julia — made this dish, vichyssoise soup, and she ended up poisoning 52 of the sisters and they died,” Artistic Director Mark Costello said. “They had enough money to bury 48.”

The burial money came up short because the Reverend Mother Mary Regina, thinking they had raised enough to cover all the expenses, spent some of the funds for a new plasma television.

“They have four of the nuns in the freezer,” Costello said. “They’re putting on a benefit so they can raise the money to bury these last four nuns.”

The cast includes five women portrayed by Suzanne Unger, Sandy Hardy Meadows, Whitney Coleman Scanling, Karen Spicer McNally and Lindsey Giddens Stewart.

“They all have their distinct personalities,” Costello said. “Reverend Mother is always the one who wants to be in charge and she can be a little silly, even though she tries to keep a firm hold on all the proceedings.

“Then she has a second-in-command, Sister Mary Hubert — they’re all Sister Mary somebody. She’s head of the novices of the order. She’s always kind of ribbing the reverend mother or pointing out her shortcomings.”

There’s also the streetwise nun, Sister Mary Robert Ann, and a nun who can’t remember who she is, Sister Mary Amnesia.

“She doesn’t remember who she is because a crucifix fell on her head, so she’s lost her memory,” Costello said. “She’s real giddy, real sweet, sweet type.

“The last one is Sister Mary Leo, who is sort of the dancing nun. She wanted to be a ballerina at one time, took a lot of dancing lessons. And she’s a novice, so she’s not a full-fledged nun.”

The playwright, Dan Coggin, an Alma, Mich., native who moved to New York City to be a singer, based the play on his interaction with nuns growing up. Their first incarnation came in the form of wisecracking nuns on greeting cards created by Coggin that became so popular, he decided to develop a play around them. The award-winning show opened in December 1985 and ran for 10 years in New York, spawning sequels and TV versions.

“He knows the humor of the nuns,” Costello observed. “He’s basing his approach for the show from his knowledge of them. The nuns are not all severe, hard. They do have humor.”

Costello says the play is loaded with that humor.

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Whitney Scanling performs as "Sister Mary Leo" during a rehearsal of Theatre Albany's production of "Nunsense."

“They go through little episodes, and each of them have moments when they’re each highlighted by a song,” he said. “And then they have a section in the second half that they call ‘Baking with the BVM’ — Baking with the Blessed Virgin Mary — because that’s the name of Sister Julia, Child’s cookbook. They have a section where they go through all the recipes: appetizers from the Last Supper, Host Toasties, and Leg of Lamb of God and things of that nature.”

Those attending the show become part of the action.

“The fourth wall is broken,” Costello said. “The nuns will go out there and they will talk to them before the show begins, so it is very much an interaction with that.

“The audience is supposed to be the audience that has come to the benefit to support the nuns. There are various times they (the actors) go out and chat. The girl playing Mary Amnesia, they try to get her up on stage and she says, ‘I’m recruiting! She (an audience member) wants to be a nun!’ ... They play to the audience. They include them in their speeches when they talk to them. It’s lots of fun.”

There’s even a portion of the play that calls for some improvisation. The nuns perform a song about their work at the leper colony, returning home and the deadly tainted soup. Then the nun played by Stewart quizzes some members of the audience and awards “prizes.”

“The quiz sort of has to be (improvised),” Costello said. “And Lindsey’s going to be really good at that. It’s set up that way. She’s got to be prepared. I think the cast members are up to it. They have to be able to think on their feet and play with that.”

“Nunsense’s” nine-performance, three weekend run includes 8 p.m. shows this Friday and Saturday and Sept. 21-22 and 27-29. Matinees are scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 16 and 23.

Season tickets are $105, regular admission, and $90, senior citizens. Individual show tickets are $25, adults; $20, seniors; $10, students. For reservations, call (229) 439-7141. The theater is located at 514 Pine Ave.