Yiddish-speaking nuns make for some meshugginah fun

The four little sisters from Hoboken who first came alive 20 years ago in “Nunsense” have gone interfaith and funnier than ever as “Meshuggah-Nuns!”

Having its West Coast debut at the Willows Theatre in Concord, the production is simple but effective. The plot, well there really isn’t much of a plot. The choreography is simple, the jokes recycled and some of the music is original while others are familiar tunes with new lyrics, but somehow the whole thing works and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

This time we find the sisters aboard a ship on a Faiths of All Nations cruise. They’ve hit a storm that has left the entire company of the ship’s show, “Fiddler on the Roof,” stateroom-bound and too sick to perform. Well, almost the entire company. Howard, the actor who plays Tevye, is upright. Knowing that the nuns have had some experience on the stage, the captain calls them into service and, together with Howard, they undertake to entertain the rest of the passengers.

After confessing that neither the nuns nor Howard know much about the other’s religion, they look for some common ground and find it in their shared guilt, a phenomenon they celebrate in the song “Contrition,” sung to the tune of “Fiddler on the Roof’s” “Tradition.”

And the show is off. What follows is a vaudevillian-style review full of singing and dancing and all-around silliness. The dialogue that ties the songs together is light and filled with jokes, sometimes delivered through portholes in a style reminiscent of “Laugh-In’s” joke wall. Most of the jokes are hackneyed and, although the audience — at least the Jewish segment — can see what’s coming, they’re delivered so artfully that they always draw laughter.

The musical numbers incorporate an array of genres, from “Three Shayna Maidels,” sung by the three younger nuns a la Andrew Sisters, to the energetic “Matzah Man,” emulating the pop music group, the Village People.

The Reverend Mother, played by Amy Washburn, decked out in feathers over her habit, struts her stuff in the show-stopping, Sophie Tucker-esque “My Fat Is My Fortune.” Sister Amnesia, played by Mindy Stover, is daffy and endearing and does a wonderful Mae West through her alter-ego Sister Mary Annette — a hand puppet — in “Come Up and See Me Sometime.”

When Sister Robert Anne finally gets to take center stage she brings the house down with “I’ll Find a Song to Sing,” a rendition of many chanteuses all rolled up into one.

There’s even a tribute to seafaring movie disasters from “Titanic” to “The Poseidon Adventure.” And it certainly offers probably one of the most entertaining — and lucrative — intermissions in theater history: a nun-run bingo game.

The Jewish theme is carried throughout with songs like “Say it in Yiddish,” Howard’s language lesson to the good sisters, and “If I Were a Catholic,” his imaginings of what it would be like if he weren’t Jewish.

“Meshuggah-Nuns!” is the most recent of Dan Goggin’s musical comedies about the little sisters of Hoboken, a legacy that started with a greeting card he made depicting a nun.

“I thought I could bring the character to life,” Goggin said in a phone interview from Houston, where he’s rehearsing an all-star cast including Kaye Ballard, Georgia Engel, Mimi Hines, Darlene Love and Lee Meriwether for a 20th anniversary national tour of the original version of “Nunsense.” Using the nuns from St. Mary’s, the Catholic school he attended in Alma, Mich., as models, “Nunsense” was born. First performed in a Greenwich Village cabaret, the show moved to a theater off-Broadway, became a standard in community theaters around the country and was even adapted for television. Since the first production, Goggin has penned several different versions, including one with a country western theme and another with an all-male cast.

Yes, the nuns after whom the characters were modeled have seen the show and, according to Goggin, love it. They even got a chance to try their hand at acting in a cameo in the television version.

Being a good Catholic boy, Goggin needed a little help from his friends with the Jewish cultural nuances in order to develop “Meshuggah-Nuns!”

Not only does he pull it off masterly but the cast now performing at the Willows is strong, talented and captures the Yiddishkeit flavor. “Meshuggah-Nuns!” is live entertainment at its best, a show not to be missed.

“Meshuggah-Nuns!” runs through Dec. 31 at The Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd., Concord. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 3:30 p.m Wednesdays., 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. No performances Nov. 26 and 27 and Dec. 24 and 25. Tickets are $20 to $35. (925) 798-1300, www.willowstheatre.org.