There is much to like about The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun—a campy and over-the-top musical homage to Sister Jeanine Fou (aka Sister Smile), the singing nun and unlikely pop chanteuse who found herself catapulted to superstardom (and a Grammy Award) with her wildly popular 60's hit song "Dominique." The production, presented at the New York Musical Theater Festival, features an infectious score by Andy Monroe and a deliriously silly cast. Yet despite all its great qualities, it is undermined by Michael Schiralli's weak staging and Blair Fell's overwritten and disjointed plot. Nun recounts the story of Sister Jeanine (Laura Daniel), from her childhood in Belgium with her crazy Maman (Eileen F. Stevens) and true love/best pal Annie Nevermind (Tracey Gilbert), to her life in the convent, to her success as an international pop sensation. After leaving home for the convent, Jeanine encounters the aggressively competitive Sister Maria (Kristen Beil) and the delightfully inappropriate Mother Helen Lawson (Kristine Zbornik). A vision of Saint Dominique (Randy Blair) then leads Jeanine to write the song that will forever change her life. When the convent falls on hard times, sexy Father Lyon (Michael Hunsaker) and his former paramour, Sister Coco Callmesimael (Stephen Michael Rondel), record the song and turn her into a pop superstar.
The show is really quite amusing, thanks in large part to a very funny cast that is not afraid to look stupid. Zbornik hilariously channels Ethel Merman as the deliciously sinful Mother Helen. Stevens's Maman recalls Piper Laurie in Carrie with her hysterically exaggerated screams of "They're gonna laugh at you!," while Blair steals the show, playing Dominique as the love child of Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly.
Unfortunately, there are moments when the show is just a mess: the jokes become stale, the stage cluttered, and the "arched eyebrow" acting irritating. Many of the scenes come off as superfluous, and there are too many subplots to sustain focus. Schiralli's prosaic direction does little to advance the story. Under his guidance, scenes are stilted, and the actors don't connect.
Nun began life as a play, and one senses a reluctance to trim down the original writing with the later addition of music. As a result, Sister Jeanine's story goes from entertaining to tiresome while clocking in at over two hours. In the process, a great idea is lost and a comedic gold mine squandered.