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Civic brings back the hilarious ‘Nunsense’

Mother Superior (Jean Hardie) is surrounded by, from left, Sister Robert Anne (Abbey Crawford), Sister Mary Amnesia (Patricia Brady), Sister Mary Leo (Jillian Wylie) and Sister Mary Hubert (Kathie Doyle-Lipe) in a scene from Spokane Civic Theatre’s “Nunsense.” (Dan Pelle)
Mother Superior (Jean Hardie) is surrounded by, from left, Sister Robert Anne (Abbey Crawford), Sister Mary Amnesia (Patricia Brady), Sister Mary Leo (Jillian Wylie) and Sister Mary Hubert (Kathie Doyle-Lipe) in a scene from Spokane Civic Theatre’s “Nunsense.” (Dan Pelle)

Way back in March 1990, a wimple-wearing Mother Superior Mary Regina walked out on the Spokane Civic Theatre stage and gave the audience a crabby tongue-lashing for arriving late and chewing gum.

The crowd went crazy. People barely stopped laughing for the next two hours.

It was the beginning of a beautiful, long-term relationship between “Nunsense” and Spokane audiences.

This weekend, theatergoers get to relive that first blush of “Nunsense” infatuation when the Civic revives the show with Jean Hardie, the original – and legendary – Mother Superior, along with Patricia Brady as the puppet-wielding Sister Mary Amnesia, another actress who brought down the house in 1990.

And on top of that, this production brings back some of the best-loved nuns from later productions: Kathie Doyle-Lipe as Sister Mary Hubert and Abbey Crawford as Sister Robert Anne.

The only “Nunsense” novice is Jillian Wylie as the youngest nun, Sister Mary Leo.

The whole thing is directed by Troy Nickerson, who was the choreographer of that 1990 production (Patrick Treadway directed) and director of many subsequent productions.

Hardie said she’s still having fun, 21 years later. Yet it will probably be her swan song in this tough, physically demanding role.

“This feels like the last one,” said Hardie, 64. “It’s hard.”

How hard? During the first performance of the 1990 debut, Hardie threw herself off the stage so vigorously that she pulled a calf muscle. The only way she could make it through the second act was with a cane.

The cane proved to be a versatile comic prop, so she just kept using it. Yes, she’ll be wielding the cane in this show, too.

It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of that 1990 production. At the time, “Nunsense” was still running off-Broadway, but was new to this region. Singing, dancing nuns with feather boas seemed risky and irreverent.

Hardie remembers being afraid that the audience would sit there, arms folded, with a “this is not at all funny” expression. But the crowd loved it.

“And the people who loved it, loved it more than I’d ever seen anybody love anything,” she said. “They came back and saw it five or six times with their friends.

“It’s not unusual for people to come back to see a show. But five or six times?”

The show sold out every ticket and was revived that summer to fulfill demand. Then it was revived again in 1991.

In 1993, the Civic had another hit with “Nunsense II – The Second Coming,” and in 1999 with “Nuncrackers.” Then the theater staged another “Nunsense” revival in 2003 and it was another huge smash.

What was all the fuss?

Just take a look at what our reviewers said about some of these past “Nunsense” performances:

On Jean Hardie: “The Reverend Mother takes a couple of hits of a drug called Rush and goes completely manic. She falls down in hysterics and the rolls completely off the stage almost into the front row. An audience member was called upon to boost her back onto the stage, at which point she rolled back and forth on her stomach like an orca, shouting ‘Free Willy!’ ” – from 2003.

On Patricia Brady: “She knocked out the crowd with her great soprano voice, a knack for improvisational comedy, a dead-accurate impression of a country singer and even a talent for comic ventriloquism, which she demonstrated with her marionette, Sister Mary Annette” – from 1990.

On Kathie Doyle-Lipe: “She can snap off a cartwheel, reel off a blizzard of tap steps and then knock the crowd dead just by standing there, looking steamed. She had the audience howling just by the way she hopped onto her stool” – from 2003.

Doyle-Lipe, who has now played every “Nunsense” role except Sister Mary Amnesia, said sharp-eyed audience members may notice a few concessions to age.

She and Hardie used to end one number with a contest to see who could kick the highest. Yet the hip joints aren’t quite what they used to be. There will be no high-kick competition this time around.

What are they replacing it with?

“I’m doing a handspring,” said Doyle-Lipe.

Meanwhile, there’s little reason to suspect that this “Nunsense” won’t do a handspring with Spokane audiences.

“It has to be fun to watch,” said Hardie. “It sure is fun to do.”

And for those who don’t want the Reverend Mother to hang up her habit, Hardie is leaving just a tiny sliver of hope alive.

“As I’ve said many times, never say never,” she said.