Denise Fennell as Sister in Stages' Late Nite Catechism Las Vegas Sister Rolls the Dice! 

Image: Claire Logue

With Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” playing as the waiting room music for Stages’s virtual production of Late Nite Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice!, audiences can get ready for an entertaining parody on fundraising with a Vegas theme.

If you have never seen Maripat Donovan’s previous Late Night Catechism plays featuring Sister, the brash and funny nun who will tell it like it is, you are in for a treat. Each one has a different theme, and this one addresses how Covid-19 has been a disaster for the Catholic Church’s fundraising. With her pronounced talent for arm twisting, Sister is the perfect candidate to create a successful fundraiser for Saint Bruno’s. Her goal: drinking, dancing, and gambling (with the knowledge that, “the House always wins,” of course).

And star Denise Fennell, a familiar face here in Houston—having played Sister for Stages audiences in the past, tips the odds in the House’s favor. Fennell is an accomplished actress and a natural comedienne, with spot-on timing and a real rapport with audience members that is hard to achieve. So, you can imagine how I marveled at her ability to accomplish this through Zoom.

It felt like, well, a miracle.

Fennell came out with guns blazing, making us all laugh as she scolded the virtual audience saying, “I could hear everything you were saying before the class started.” This is even funnier than simply extending the stereotypes of harsh nuns in Catholic schools as she really does reveal what some people were saying before.

And though there was a little internet trouble with Zoom, Fennell handled it with aplomb: “We can’t explain the internet—it’s a little like God.”

She offers Sister’s unique and wry view of life: Yes, the pandemic led her to “day drinking,” but the bright side is that it can bring us all together through the magic of Zoom, allowing the show to go on. She does this in the setting of the Catholic school room (we are her adult Catechism class), and I love this stage (thanks to Jodi Bobrovsky) with its books, a flag of Texas, and the saints on the wall in frames. It looks like a real classroom, podium and all, even though this will be transformed into a glitzy Vegas venue for Sister’s fundraising games.

Between chiding the audience for our transgressions and commenting on the Pope, Fennell has some jokes that provide a thread to the other productions, but she also makes this performance special to Houstonians, mentioning the Astros and February’s deep freeze.

And, of course, there’re the ad-libs, a staple of any Sister show—my favorite being if you are Protestant, you don’t believe in purgatory, so your religion is "Pass/Fail." Another highlight of the evening? When she admired two audience members’ 80-by-60 painting, exclaiming, “You must be loaded,” before adding that she will need it for her fundraiser’s silent auction. Fennell makes the moment look easy, but it isn’t.

Sister has become a “certified magician” so she can do magic for her fundraiser, but the most magical thing about Sister Rolls the Dice! is that while you never know what might happen, you can have faith that under Fennell it will all work out just fine.

It’s fun to have fun at a show that is meant to be fun; It might be the perfect choice of production in a year that has, well, not been that fun. 

May 13–23. From $25. Online. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at www.stagestheatre.com.

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