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Habits die hard

This satire of the lives of five nuns is just the latest in a series of productions, spin-offs and merchandising of the popular show that opened in December 1985.

Off-Broadway has come to the Show Palace Dinner Theatre with the arrival of Nunsense, the slightly irreverent but always heartwarming story of the Little Sisters of Hoboken and their efforts to raise money to bury the remaining four of the 52 nuns who have died of botulism contracted by eating vichyssoise prepared by the convent chef, Sister Julia (Child of God).

While keeping the departed nuns in the convent's deep freeze, the five sisters who escaped death because they were out playing bingo that night busy themselves with putting on a musical. Sister Julia does her part by working on a cookbook featuring some of her best recipes, one of which is barbecued spareribs St. Joan. The other nuns quickly discourage the idea.

Nunsense opened in December 1985 at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York and ran for nearly a decade, closing in February of 1995 after 3,672 performances. During its life, it has become something of a cottage industry; at one time, more than 300 companies were doing it all over the world. Not surprisingly, the show has spawned sequels, including Nunsense II, the Second Coming; Nunsense Jamboree; and Nunscrackers, a Christmas show that spoofs the Nutcracker.

A version of the original done in drag by men, Nunsense, A-Men!, had a long run in New York.

There's even an online Nunsense store that sells hand puppet nuns and rents nuns' habits for $75 a week.

Dan Goggin's madcap revue satirizes convent life with loving humor. The writer-composer-lyricist was a graduate of parochial schools and a former seminarian, and he vows that his school days were pure pleasure. Goggin once told New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden that of all the people who see the show, the greatest fans are priests and nuns.

Goggin was offered a king's ransom to make the musical into a movie, but he didn't like the changes the movie producers wanted to make to the script _ he thought they were too irreverent _ so he turned the Hollywood bigwigs down. Instead, he is working on an independent film version that is faithful to his original.

More than 25,000 women have played in various productions of the show, including Edie Adams, Kaye Ballard, JoAnne Worley, Peggy Cass, Phyllis Diller and Pat Carroll.

Show Palace director Jimmy Ferraro searched far and near for actors to be in his version.

He didn't have to look far for the right Mother Superior; his wife, former Broadway player Dee Etta Rowe, will reprise the role she performed for sold-out audiences at the couple's erstwhile Angel "garden cafe" Theatre, which two years ago merged with the Show Palace.

Ms. Rowe's credentials include stints on Broadway with Metropolitan Opera star Georgio Tozzi in The Most Happy Fella, a creation of the role of Olga Von Sturm in the Tony Award-winning musical Nine on Broadway, and national tours with Angela Lansbury in Sweeny Todd. She was also in the television version of that show, again with Ms. Lansbury.

The gospel-singing Sister Mary Hubert will be played by Memphis native Lar-Juanette Williams, the founder of Optasia Productions in Memphis. Among other accomplishments, Ms. Williams wrote and directed the multicultural Christian adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, renamed Journey into Paradise.

The role of Sister Amnesia is Antonia Nozicka, who has done the role more than 1,000 times at various theaters, including the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers, the Dutch Apple Dinnter Theatre in Lancaster, Pa., the Goldenrod Showboat near St. Louis and the Off-Broadway national tour directed by Goggin, the show's creator. She has also played the title roles in Evita and Peter Pan.

Orlando actor Susan Haldeman will be the streetwise Sister Robert Anne. She has played the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Mrs. Prysillius in the national tour of Pippi Longstocking.

Reprising her role as the novitiate, Sister Mary Leo, is Show Palace veteran Chelle St. Pierre, most recently seen as the high-kicking Claudine in Can-Can and as Angel in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Ms. St. Pierre played the role at the Angel in 1996.