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At first, Barbara Bartlett didn't get the punch line.

So she wasn't at all shocked when Sister Mary Amnesia said in one of her speeches to the audience, "When the big hand is on John and the little hand is on Peter, it's time for all the sisters to get down on their knees and pray."

Once Bartlett realized the sister was talking about a convent clock bearing pictures of the apostles instead of numbers, she understood the bawdiness of that remark.

"You don't think that's a little risque?" asked Bartlett. "When a nun says it, you will find people on the floor laughing."

The producer of the upcoming run of Nunsense at Stage West Community Playhouse is hoping to create a symbiosis between folks like herself, who were not raised as strict Catholics, and the goofy buffoonery of a convent full of nuns.

"I had to have some of this explained to me because I didn't understand why this was funny," Bartlett said.

Catholic or not, the humor that feeds this musical comedy has proven to be universal. It's also inoffensive, director Jennifer Springer said.

"It's a very innocent character delivering that line," Springer said. "There are some innuendos within the play, but it's still family entertainment."

The show's popularity seems to indicate that the public agrees. Nunsense is the second-longest-running off-Broadway show. There have been roughly 5,000 productions of the show in 16 languages and a sequel, Nunsense II.

"It's probably one of the biggest-grossing shows ever," Bartlett said. "This is a monster wherever the show is held."

Set in a convent gym in Hoboken, N.J., the stage has a jukebox and a '57 Chevy in the backdrop where the kids at the convent school are putting on a performance of Grease.

After the convent chef, Sister Julia, Child of God, whips up a bad batch of soup that leaves 52 of the sisters dead of botulism, five of the remaining nuns take to the same stage to raise money for burials. The nuns put on a variety show, and it's a chance for each to fulfill a kooky dream.

Sister Leo becomes a ballerina. Sister Mary Amnesia satisfies an itch to sing country music. Mother Superior, who wanted to be a Broadway star, performs a titillating dance.

"They sing and they tap dance and they pray," Bartlett said. "They do all the things nuns can do."

In all, there are 16 production numbers in Nunsense. There's probably more singing and dancing than there is dialogue, Springer said.

"It's just a fun show. It's real lighthearted and fast-paced," she said.

Personality plays a big part in the show. Characters range from a stern Mother Superior to ditsy Sister Mary Amnesia to the demure Sister Hubert, mistress of novices.

"They could all dress in paper bags and you'd be able to tell them apart," Bartlett said.

Cast members further personalize their characters through audience interaction -- they often ad lib scenes. Springer said that's one reason she decided to direct Nunsense.

"The audience gets drawn into it. They don't just observe, they participate," Springer said.

Nunsense, a musical comedy, Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., in Spring Hill, Nov. 4-6, 10-13, 17-20. Show at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Special Saturday matinee performances will be 2 p.m. Nov. 12 and 19. Tickets are $11 for adults; $5.50 for students. Tickets may be purchased from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the box office Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, or one hour before show time. Information: 683-5113.