When Dan Goggin wrote Nunsense in 1985, he probably would not have thought that his Off-Broadway musical comedy as an entertainment can be turned into a deepened theatre piece that enlarges its theme on faith.

Chung Ying Theatre’s production of Nunsense A-Men! (the male version of Nunsense) is a soul searching journey through songs and comedy, which, under Dominic Cheung’s hands of direction, can make you emote after show if you ever have doubts in life.

Rating: 4

It is no surprise that Mr Cheung has produced another version of Nunsense after his first production in 2010 when he was still the artistic director of Theatre Space, since this musical really speaks to Catholics.

Knowing the premise, which is basically a revue done by five nuns for donation to bury 52 other sisters died in a food poisoning accident, I thought I was just going to see a show similar to Saturday Night Live, especially this time, they are doing Nunsense A-Men!, which all nuns are played by men. Drag is always a contract to laughters.

Never would I have thought that I was caught by the opening of the show, which Mr Cheung has already put a footnote of his reading to the piece. Usually, the show starts straightaway by having Sr Mary Regina giving out her greeting to the audience. Mr Cheung deliberately adds a prologue before it.

It starts with a lightened cross hanged above a nearly bare stage, with coffins situated under it in a horizontal line. We can hear choral hymns sung. A nun climbs out from one of the coffins, not sure where she is, then searches for the other sisters.

The stage transformed into a huge set for the musical Grease (as the nuns are just temporarily having the show at a middle school hall where the Grease set is still there), and we see the sisters are preparing for the show upon it. While they are preparing, each sister is searching for another sister, and there is always a miss on timing for finding each other, until to a moment they all come together, and the show finally starts.

I bet if Mr Goggin was sitting at the theatre, he would be stunned by that, because this prologue really hits the heart of the play, which Mr Cheung somehow wants to tell his audience that, Nunsense A-Men! is a musical about searching, to search one’s faith, and continue to search whenever you have doubts.

And it really shows in the piece. Once the musical unfolds its content, we can see that all five sisters have their own desires which are beyond the strict rules of Catholicism. Gradually, through comedy, we can hear their stories and their reasons why they want to convert to Catholicism.

But Mr Cheung, being a Catholic, knows his place. He cleverly controls his deep philosophy for the production, and totally understands that Nunsense A-Men! is still an entertainment with song and dance, and they are, without a doubt, easy to swallow. The songs are very catchy that the audience definitely are drawn into the numbers. There is a variety of musical genres, from Broadway type to Country to Gospel. It is a feast of musical enjoyment.

For the comedy side, Mr Goggin gives clear characteristics of all five nuns, and their exchanges bring comedy gold. There is Sr Mary Regina, the Mother Superior who can never resist the spotlight due to her circus performing background; her rival, Sr Hubert, who is also Sr Mary Regina’s confidant; Sr Robert Anne who was from the streets of Brooklyn, and always wants to have her solo act; Sr Leo whose goal is to be a world famous ballerina-nun; and Sr Amnesia who, as her name reveals, lost her memory of her past.

As mentioned before, this is a revue, thus there are a lot of short scenes of comedy, music performances, and an audience quiz through out the two-and-a-half-hour show. However, Mr Goggin, like having Michael Frayn’s Noises Off in his sleeves, keeps giving obstacles for the show to run smoothly.

Sr Mary Regina is frustrated all through the show as the other four sisters just do not follow the rundown of the show. Performances have to be saved and replaced by other acts, and because of its cabaret nature, each song is an internal monologue or a collective poem about each nun. We can hear their personal voices and their struggles.

Even the comedy reveals the human nature of these nuns, even though they are supposed to be saints under Catholic rule. The revelation of the content of Sister Julia’s cookbook sarcastically shows that even nuns have sexual desires, but whenever they are in front of the public, they try to hide it. Sr Amnesia, who is kind and gentle, performs with a puppet of her own, which is foul and rude, totally the opposite of Sr Amnesia. Even Sr Mary Regina, the strict grumpy superior, reveals her true self of insanity when she takes in that pack of cocaine.

What I see is the struggle of being one faithful image and being oneself. These five nuns are trying to adapt between the two, and thus comedy exudes. Not to mention this version is played by five male actors being the female characters. I do not know whether Mr Goggin has this idea when he produced this all-men Nunsense, but Mr Cheung’s production really utilises this comedy gimmick to explore the theme of being trapped in one gender’s body but being another gender’s character. I see those male actors trying to imitate as females, but there are still some traits informing me that they are still men. Turns out, this contradiction produces their own natural identities.

At the end, when Sr Amnesia finally remembers who she is, all things resolved, and once the show ends, all things cleared on stage. The cross appears again. The choral hymn is heard again. Bars of light shone above the stage, creating a picture of the house of God, and the five sisters walk towards the light of the Holy Father. Such ending leaves the audience a profound image of serenity, and really think about when will we ever get to that status.

It is this immense reading of the piece that leads to the brilliant performances by the five actors on stage. All are excellent individuals. Mak Pui Tung plays Sr Mary Regina whose funny bones is intact. Vong Tin Ian plays Sr Hubert who has the most natural voice among all. Billy Sy as Sr Robert Anne is grounded with feisty. Rick Cheung’s Sr Leo gives specular ballet routines, capturing every audience’s attention with his Pirouettes, and Christopher Ying, personally the star of the night, brings down the house with his quirky but lovable Sr Amnesia.

But what makes these actors exceptionally good is their honesty to their performances. Mr Cheung does not over directs the femininity of each actors for cheap laughs. All of them are very comfortable about their swap of gender, and through their eloquent energy with various numbers and dances, choreographed by Gigi Yiu, I start to listen to their stories, to really connect with these marvellous individuals and root for them. Mr Cheung’s usage of pathos really pays off.

The only criticism about the acting department is that, Mr Goggin’s piece requires high improvisational skills for interactions with the audience, as if they are really the MCs of the show. Maybe because it is the opening night and they are cautious, the immersive vibe from the actors to invite the audience to live and breathe with them together is still not fully conceived. I feel that I am still behind the fourth wall, and the actors are talking to the imagined audience instead of directly speaking to us.

The production is charming. The auditorium of Kwai Tsing Theatre does have a similar vibe to the Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Big sets must be needed to support such large performing area. Advised by Allan Tsui, the carpentry of the Grease set is beautiful, with brilliant thoughts of having hidden platforms embedded with lights for spectacles. Mable Wun’s costumes are delicately conceived, same as the lighting designed by Maggie Law. They all give adequate support to the production.

But kudos must be given to Edgar Hung and Chris Shum, who are the musical director and the Cantonese translator of the musical respectively. Mr Hung’s musical direction gives new life to the musical. His craft in producing musical tracks for the numbers are skilful, and those tracks are done without leaving out the storytelling of the piece.

There are some arrangements for some songs and scenes that transport the show from a revue to a soulful music theatre that speaks with depth. With a change of texture in the music within a number, a bigger image than a musical comedy song is presented.

Mr Shum is definitely still the best musical lyricist in Hong Kong to date. Not to mention his sensitivity of word choices to deliver the same message of a song without losing touch with the Hong Kong audience, but his discipline on rhyme schemes and tonality in writing Cantonese lyrics is one of a kind in this generation.

All the rhymes are hit under precise tonality, with a variety of words, and vowels that are comfortable to the ear. There are also internal rhymes between English and Cantonese, which are cleverly constructed. It is professionally done with care for the actors to sing without uneasiness, as well as for the audience to hear with clarity. Musical is all about clear message delivery, and with a language that is so difficult to do that through singing, Mr Shum completes the task effortlessly.