Divine Sister act raises holy, hilarious hell at NCTC

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The cast of New Conservatory Theatre Center’s daffy Divine Sister includes (from left) David Bicha as Sister Agnes, Matt Weimer as Jeremy, Marie O’Donnell as Sister Acacius, Joe Wicht as Mother Superior, and Conrad Frank as Sister Walburga. Below: (from left) Wicht’s Mother Superior confers with O’Donnell’s Sister Acacius, while Bicha’s Sister Agnes and Frank’s Sister Walburga look for holy images in a pair of soiled underpants. Photos by Lois Tema Photography

Clutch your rosary beads and get ready to laugh. New Conservatory Theatre Center’s The Divine Sister by Charles Busch (a national treasure, even if the entire nation isn’t quite aware of it yet) is the funniest thing you’ll see on a stage this Pride Season

Director F. Allen Sawyer and his spot-on cast – some in drag, some in habits, some in miniskirts, some in full-body black latex – are having a blast with Busch’s wry and wily send-up of ever movie ever made featuring nuns. From Soeur Sourire and her guitar-strumming hit “Dominique” to Roz Russell riding holy herd on Hayley Mills in The Trouble with Angels, this show doesn’t miss a reference.

Singing nuns of Sister Act? Got ’em. Flying nun a la Sally Field…er, well maybe not every reference. But nuns and comedy are a good match (Nunsense anyone? No thanks, I’ll take Busch any day), especially when the fun is being orchestrated by Sawyer, a director who knows just how to balance camp, comedy and solid storytelling.

First, you start out with a convent in trouble. This one, including its elementary school, is in Pittsburgh. The year is 1966, and Mother Superior (Joe Wicht, as reliable a drag actor as there’s ever been) has to go begging from the loaded local Jewish widow (Michaela Greeley) to raise money to raze the crumbling convent and build a slick new ’60s complex.

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But this won’t be easy, especially with things in a bit of a frenzy in the convent. A young postulant, Agnes (David Bicha, who does dizzy, vacant eyes better than anyone) is purported to have great healing powers and she has visions. For instance, she sees the image of Saint Claire in a pair of schoolboy’s urine-stained underwear. A visiting nun from Berlin, Sister Walberga (J. Conrad Frank, who combines vixen sexiness with German aggression in ways both terrifying and terribly funny) is having secret DaVinci Code-like meetings with an old monk in the basement, and the wrestling coach, Sister Acacius (Marie O’Donnell, who has Mary Wickes-like common sense) is harboring a secret that will change everything.

As if that’s not enough plot, a movie executive (Matt Weimer, who plays it straight and still gets a bundle of laughs) comes sniffing around to see if the stories about the powerful postulant are true. Turns out he knew Mother Superior and Sister Acacius back in another life when they were blowing the roof off of hard-boiled journalism.

All of this unfolds on a comic book-colorful set by Kuo-Hao Lo, and the pace is never slack but never rushed. There’s enough time for a few musical numbers and a whole lot of laughs. One of the funniest bits is also the foulest – Mother Superior’s transatlantic accent turns certain words a certain way, making Sister Acacius think she has been horribly maligned. And then the joke keeps running, right on to the gun-wielding climax.

Is it all silly? Yes, terribly. Is it hilarious? Yes, terribly. As summer comedies go, NCTC’s The Divine Sister means our prayers have been answered.

Charles’ Busch’s The Divine Sister continues through June 29 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$45. Visit www.nctcsf.org.

Review: `Zanna, Don’t!’

Football star Steve (Stephen Foreman, left) meets the fabulously gay student body of Heartsville High in the musical Zanna, Don’t at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photos by Lois Tema

Magic, show tunes, teenagers whip up mighty spell in `Zanna’
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Clever, colorful, tuneful and sweet – that’s Zanna, Don’t! in a nutshell.

You’ve heard of Xanadu, well now meet it’s more engaging, gayer cousin. Zanna, Don’t! was an off-Broadway hit five years ago and finally makes its Bay Area premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in a delightful production full of appealing young actors under the astute direction of F. Allen Sawyer.

In the movie (and later Broadway musical) Xanadu, a roller-skating light bulb, er, goddess named Kira came to Earth to help a befuddled artist find his inspiration and dance with Gene Kelly. In Tim Acito’s musical, a Midwestern fairy (in every sense of the word)in a small town called Heartsville, makes it his business to ensure that all of the town’s same-sex couples are happy and on the brightly colored path to love. (Kuo-Hao Lo’s set is part comic book, part Oz, part candy store.)

In this topsy-turvy world, you see, gay is the rule. All couples are same sex, and if you’re straight, you are forced to be in the closet. At Heartsville High, the upside-down logic continues. Athletic heroes are nothing compared to chess heroes, guys spend time with guys doing “regular guy stuff” like making brownies, and it’s a matter of course that the captain of the football team will be in the school musical.

It’s that darn musical that ends up causing so much upset in Heartsville. The drama kids want to get political this year, so they write an original show about allowing straights in the military. And wouldn’t you just know it? The two actors playing the straight couple, Kate (Katrina McGraw) and Steve (Stephen Foreman), actually fall in love.

Hetero love in Heartsville? Scandal!

Even Zanna (the adorable Price Adam Troche Jr., right) and his trusty wand can’t help without changing the course of history.

Of course there’s a happy ending (this is a chipper musical, after all), but that ending is the least satisfying aspect of Acito’s thoroughly charming show. Some magic happens, a shift occurs, a song is sung, and everything turns out OK. Using musical theater logic, that’s not such a bad sequence of events, but Zanna has been so much cuter and sharper than that through most of its two-plus hours.

Acito is clearly a musical theater fan – he references everything from Grease to Kiss Me Kate to Anyone Can Whistle to Jesus Christ Superstar – and he traffics in upended musical theater clichés to terrific effect in this flittery fairy tale.

The score, which benefits from the excellent musical direction and nimble playing of G. Scott Lacy, is bright, catchy and irresistible. There are country numbers, musical theater spoofs, energetic dance numbers and some surprisingly effective ballads.

One such ballad, “I Could Write Books,” is the emotional opposite of Rodgers and Hart’s chipper “I Could Write a Book.” It is sung by Mike (Timitcio Artusio), who suspects something is up with his quarterback boyfriend:

“I could write books
‘bout all the things you don’t know about me,
page after page of all the things you didn’t say.
I could write books
‘bout all the things you didn’t do,
And then write twice as much
about how much I still love you.”

The youthful ensemble, which also includes Brian J. Patterson, Rodney Earl Jackson, Miquela Sierra and Cindy Im, is tremendously appealing. They execute Stephanie Temple’s bouncy choreography with zest. There are some volume problems here and there (the singers do not use microphones), but on the whole, the cast sounds good, and they’re cute as can be in Jeffrey Lalonde’s perky costumes.

Like most good fairy tales, Zanna, Don’t! is frothy on top and shot through with some fairly serious issues underneath. Though never overtly mentioned, upset over the recent election hovers over the story, and though Zanna and his pals find their fairy tale ending with diversity, respect and love, the real world outside of Heartsville is desperately in need of some magic … and show tunes!


Zanna, Don’t! continues through Jan. 18 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.