Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2008

The last time I saw Nuncrackers, in May (yeah, in May, go figure) 2005 at the Mac-Haydn, I called it “one big Christmas turkey*.” Now I really like roast turkey, but at that time I did not use the word in a complimentary manner. This time I do. Jim Charles’ production of Nuncrackers at the Cohoes Music Hall is like a really great turkey dinner – a smorgasbord of diverse and enticing delights that warm the heart and tickle the funny bone. Hooray for turkey!

Calling one of Dan Goggin’s Nunsense shows a play or even a musical is a stretch. They are variety shows. The premise is always that the Little Sisters of Hoboken are staging a show to raise money to cover up for some ludicrous disaster or another. Here they are embarking on their first ever “Christmas special” for public access TV. This time a whole bunch of children from Mount Saint Helen’s School join them, upping the cute quotient considerably, along with Sister Mary Leo’s real-life brother, Father Virgil Manly Trott (Paul Kelly), who made his first appearance in Nunsense III: Sister Amnesia’s Country Western Nunsense Jamboree.

Oh, and that naughty nun-puppet, Sister Mary Annette, appears too, although who is manipulating her remains a mystery. Sister Mary Annette is not a marionette, as her name might imply, but a rod and hand puppet, like Kermit the Frog, and this time she is joined by two hand-puppet reindeer for her number The Twelve Days Prior to Christmas.

All the real humans get their little spotlight number too, and the through story, what there is of it, concerns the gifts under the convent Christmas tree going missing and Sister Mary Leo (Brittany Boivin), whose ambition is to become the first nun ballerina, injuring her knee backstage, necessitating a substitute Sugar Plum Fairy (or two) in The Nutcracker.

Over the years I have seen three of the seven Nunsense shows, and while some productions are better than others, I always appreciate the chance these shows give for talented women of all sizes, ages, and colors to strut their stuff. Here the cast ranges from the tiny and adorable Egan Mills as the youngest of the Mount Saint Helen’s students, to teenaged Boivin in the thankless, barely cameo role of Sister Mary Leo (why on earth would Goggin write a role that small??), to top-notch seasoned veterans Monica M. Wemitt as Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina, and Cynthia Thomas as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices.

I am happy to report that Karla Shook is “back in the habit” to reprise her delightfully silly performance as Sister Mary Paul (aka Sister Amnesia). Shook has played other roles in various productions of Nunsense shows, but she claims Amnesia as her favorite due to her innocence and joie de vivre. She certainly seems to be having a ton of fun, and I got a kick out of seeing her assay the role for a third time (I have only ever seen one other actress in the part!)

No one can shake their booty quite like Thomas, and no one can dance the Sugar Plum Fairy quite like Wemitt, unless it is Kelly, who, after a disastrous encounter with fruitcake, literally ties one on (a tutu, of course) and gets in on the act.

Kay Koch is fun and funny as Sister Robert Anne, a tough girl from the streets of Brooklyn who has some trouble reconciling her exuberant self with her humble calling. Her tear-jerking second act number Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn with assistance from all of the children in the cast, succeeded in being truly touching and worshipful without being maudlin.

I singled out Mills because she is just cute as a button and hits her mark every time, but all the children who play the students of Mount Saint Helen’s – Anthony Armenia, Bryce Goyer, Louis LaCivita, Annaleigh Lester, Zoe McGreevey, Grant Napierski, and Mills - are great. Like all the youngsters who grace the stage at Cohoes, they are talented, well rehearsed, and seem to be having a ball.

My only quibble with this show is Father Virgil’s first act number The Christmas Box which he sings to one of the young female students of Mount Saint Helen’s. It is a sad truth that insurance companies no longer permit any member of a church staff, lay or clergyd, to be alone with a child, let alone to touch him or her (Kelly lays an arm around the girl’s shoulder once). And it is equally sad that the image of a clergyman alone with a child is now unpleasant. The message of the song is sweet and simple, but too much wrong has been done by men of the cloth to make this scene palatable today.

In a recent interview Shook remarked that Nunsense shows only come alive before an audience, and she’s right. There is a tremendous amount of improvisation and audience participation. I would imagine Nuncrackers to be deadly dull in rehearsal, but seeing it, as I did, on Red Hat Day, was just ideal. The Red Hat Ladies are the perfect audience for the estrogen-based silliness that Goggin has whipped up. Even a curmudgeonly old theatre critic like me found it impossible to be grumpy when surrounded by so many people having a wonderful time.

Goggin makes money not just with the rights to his scripts and scores, or the sales of his popular greeting cards from which the shows have their genesis, but also from tons of Nun Stuff merchandise, including kits containing props and costumes for the show, so while Robyn James gets credit for the props and Khryn Diotte Rigney for the costumes, and while both are clever and noteworthy, they are also both undoubtedly influenced by what appears in other productions of Nuncrackers, as is Christina Williams’ set.

The last time I saw Nuncrackers I not only called it a turkey in a derogatory way, but I was rather offended by its treatment of the religious aspects of Christmas. Either I was in a particularly Scrooge-like mood on that Memorial Day weekend, or Goggin has reworked the script, but this time I was charmed, rather than repulsed, by the way the necessary Christian references (these are Roman Catholic nuns, after all) in the show were handled. The only truly raunchy moment occurs in Sister Mary Annette’s big number, and she’s a just a puppet.

Still I am not sure I would take small children to this – especially if they are Catholic and ESPECIALLY especially if they are enrolled in a parochial school! Yes, nuns are human, but it might helpful to the good Sisters into whose care you have entrusted your child’s education to keep their ignorance in tact for a few more years!

Nuncrackers, presented by C-R Productions, runs through December 21 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances are scheduled for Thursday-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for children ages 10 and up. Tickets range from $23 to $32. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.

* I just learned why we call a poor theatrical production a “turkey.” It stems from the heyday of Broadway in the early 20th century when hundreds of shows opened every season. Managers would save their weakest properties and present them during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when audiences were in a holiday mood and would pretty much buy tickets to anything. They were seasonal fare, just like the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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