Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2005
Let’s get things straight at the outset:
1. Nuncrackers is a Nunsense show.
2. Theatre critics hate Nunsense shows and I am a theatre critic.
3. Nunsense shows are completely “critic-proof.” Critics hate ‘em and audiences love ‘em.
Some might argue that item three above proves that critics are woefully out of touch with what the public wants and enjoys, but I refute that argument by pointing out that the average critic sees WAY more theatre than the average casual theatre-goer and therefore sees first-hand what people are paying for and enjoying. Having the knowledge that something is popular doesn’t remove my responsibility to call it like I see it.
And Nuncrackers is one BIG Christmas turkey. It was a turkey long before the Mac-Haydn presented it. And their a festive set, inventive costumes, and top notch cast can’t do anything to change the fact that the script and the score are dreadful – anymore than my writing these facts down is going to prevent a whole lot of you from going to see it.
Nuncrackers is the fourth of the (God forbid) six Nunsense shows that Dan Goggin has churned out so far. It is the third Nunsense show I have had to attend and review in the past year. I liked this one the least, which could be because it is more poorly written than the others, or it could just be that too much Nunsense is too much Nunsense and my tolerance level has been lowered by over-exposure. I understand completely why the Mac-Haydn wanted to open with a Nunsense show. Many of their company are college students and aren’t available this early in the season, so they needed a show that required a relatively small and fairly “mature” cast. And they had the opportunity to put four fabulous ladies on stage together – Kathy Halenda, Marcia Kunkle, Karla Shook, and Nakee Michelle White. Shook and White had just whetted the appetites of local audiences playing Sisters Amnesia and Hubert in an entertaining production of Meshuggah-Nuns at the Cohoes Music Hall in March. So I understand why The Powers That Be would consider a Nunsense show, but why the Christmas show? It is certainly lesser theatre than Nunsense and Meshuggah-Nuns – the two installments in the series that have been performed locally in the past year – and if it is considerably better than Nunsense II: The Second Coming and Nunsense III: Sister Amnesia’s Country Western Jamboree then I pray that I NEVER have to see or review either of them!!
When I first discovered that the Mac-Haydn was opening with Nuncrackers it was late winter. The announcement that I was going to start my summer season revisiting a holiday from which I had barely recovered, on a day when Old Man Winter, the quintessential uninvited guest, still had his Winnebago firmly parked in my driveway, was not greeted with shouts of joy. But, I said to myself, by May this will all be a distant memory. It will be hot and buggy and you will be glad to think of frosty, cozy winter days. I was wrong on all counts. Opening day at the Mac-Haydn was cold and wet, and despite the gorgeous and very festive decorations throughout the theatre, I could not muster up even a glimmer of Yuletide cheer.
Not only is it problematic trying to get in the holiday mood in May, but the very real sacred aspects of Christmas render Nuncrackers far more religious than the other Nunsense shows, and therefore both less accessible and less funny. You can poke fun at the Roman Catholic hierarchy all you want, but mess with Baby Jesus and you’re in DEEP trouble! I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Roman Catholic, so there may be humor in the Nunsense shows that passes me by, but I can only find so much fun in nuns and priests shaking their booties and saying racy things without understanding the double entendre. And I found some of that silliness downright embarrassing when put in a Christmas context.
Another problem with the book and premise of Nuncrackers is that it assumes that the audience already knows a great deal about the Little Sisters of Hoboken. Even as a person who knows way more than she wants to about them, there were moments in the show when it took me a while to catch a reference to something explained earlier in the oeuvre. If you have never seen a Nunsense show before either visit their Web site before you go or prepare to be mystified.
Having found a winning formula Goggin builds each Nunsense show out of very specific components in a fairly predictable order. You can bring a checklist and tick them off: Mother Superior’s monologue? Check. Unbearably maudlin sing-along? Check. Audience participation segment with Sister Amnesia? Check. Big showy number for Sister Robert Anne? Check. Does the first act end in a scene of screaming chaos and the second act with a gospel number for Sister Hubert? Well, then, we’re good to go. Except that no one ever goes anywhere. Goggin is either afraid or unable to move his characters forward. While the stage is filled with frantic activity, nothing really happens. And that is ultimately unsatisfying.
What is very satisfying about this production is seeing Halenda, Kunkle, Shook, and White on stage together. Halenda plays Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina, with a broad Irish accent and a vigorous clicker. Kunkle (oh, it is good news that she is cancer free and back at the Mac) plays the tough Brooklyn-born Sister Robert Anne a little softer than I have seen her before, but boy can she belt out those big numbers. Shook squeaks and dithers through her role as Sister Mary Paul aka Sister Amnesia. And White actually manages to bring dignity to the underwritten role of Sister Hubert. Her rousing gospel finale made my hair stand on end and reminded me why I love the theatre. White, Shook and Kunkle team up for a fun Andrews sisters-type take on “We Three Kings” and the whole adult cast kicks up their heels in a Village People pastiche entitled “In the Convent”.
Such beautiful and talented ladies – I am really looking forward to seeing them perform material worthy of their talents later in the season.
They are joined by the capable Chris Bock as the token male, Father Virgil Manly Trott, and by a gaggle of local children, many of whom are familiar faces from past Mac-Haydn productions. Bock is both talented and tall, but with all the estrogen-based star power on the stage he really doesn’t stand a chance. His moment in the sun comes when Father Virgil dresses as the convent cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, (don’t ask why) and conducts a lesson on how to make a fruitcake. I had high hopes for his other drag scene, when he and Halenda go head-to-head as dueling Sugar Plum Fairies (again, don’t ask) but somehow that piece fell flat. Where is Rusty Curcio en pointe when you need him?
The children, whose names I will duly list alphabetically, were all appealing, truly talented, and professional. Kudos to: August Abatacola, Jr., Darrin French, Amelia Millar, London Sperry, Cooper, Jahna, Rider, and Tyler Stanton, and Jamie and Lawson Young. They were obviously having a great time on stage, and I have to give Goggin credit for creating lots of easy-to-sing numbers and silly business for the kids that really utilized their energy and humor.
All of this lunacy is directed by John Saunders and choreographed by Shook. There’s never a dull moment as the actors hurtle over, under and through the maze-like confines of the Mac-Haydn. Lots of sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing, but pleasant to look at.
I think set designer Kevin Gleason has managed to cram more wall decoration into the Mac than I have ever seen before. And despite my Scrooge-like lack of holiday spirit, I did think how nice it would be to have a real holiday show at the Mac-Haydn. It looked very cheery all festooned in red and green! Andrew Gmoser has lights and lighting effects everywhere you look. And an un-credited onstage tech team, referred to as Sister Mary Gaffer-Tape and Sister Mary Technician, helped keep the props moving.
Jimm Halliday has designed very clever costumes. In a Nunsense show there are the habits, and then there are endless bits and pieces that have to go over and around the habits quickly and securely for the various sketches. I particularly liked the waffle outfits for the kids (and for the last time I warn you, don’t ask). In the pit Brother Steinway, Brother Yamaha, and Brother Boom-Boom, monikers which I assumed referred to Musical Director Phillip Kirchman, Assistant Musical Director Thomas N. Stirling, and Drummer/Percussionist Greg Gascon, provided both lively and pseudo-sacred music for the proceedings.
Nuncrackers runs through June 5 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for all ages. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005