When it comes to comedy, nuns, like monkeys, are gold. You can't go far wrong lampooning the rigid mores of a convent and contrasting them with the free spirits of the ladies who live there. It was a standard Hollywood device long before Sister Act, and writer/composer Dan Goggin has made quite a killing Off-Broadway with his Nunsense franchise.
Over the past two decades he's put together several shows featuring the Little Sisters of Hoboken, a bunch of klutzy nuns whose true personalities continually threaten to burst from their drab habits. The first Nunsense had gags aplenty, moving at a screwball pace. But the law of diminishing returns must inevitably kick in. The writer fumbles the ball with Nuncrackers and it's the audience that gets screwed.
The premise is as simple as it is ripe for farce. The sisters transform their basement into a TV studio for a Christmas broadcast, complete with "on air" sign and clerical commercial breaks. A New Jersey version of The Nutcracker ballet is postponed by various injuries and mishaps, including the disappearance of the nuns' gifts. Sister Amnesia (Rebecca Knox) provides funny interludes with her scatterbrained twists on Christmas carols; Sister Robert Anne (Cory Miller) is desperate to sing a song but no one will let her. At the end of the show, a deus ex machina marvel forces the ladies to make a moral choice.
The jokes are often predictable, using tired puns and vaudeville shtick. The songs last too long, running for four verses or more when two would do. The premise is stretched thin to meet its running time, and the humor that does hit home elicits gentle chuckles rather than gut-busting laughter.
This is the kind of show where the cast seem to have more fun than the patrons. That's a shame, because the cast work strenuously to get the most out of the flabby script. Dusty Bryant plays Father Virgil, a bible-loving booze hound. He spouts a few of his lines in a mechanical fashion, drawing our attention to the fact that he's an actor who's memorized his lines rather than a fully rounded character. But his singing lets him off the hook, with fancy tenor vocals that transcend the occasional sour note.
Similarly, Miller's rendition of "All I Want for Christmas" is gutsy enough to excuse her Brooklyn accent, which meanders all the way to Hoboken and back. Elaine Gray, as Sister Mary Hubert, lends great vocals to the gospel-inspired "It's Better to Give." There are four juvenile members of the cast -- Mary Bailey Jamieson, Cameron Jenkins, Chelsea Jennings, and Olivia Prichard. They're hard to hear when they sing "Santa's Little Teapot," and Jamieson tends to turn her face away from the audience in her tender scene with Bryant, but the quartet eke some rich humor out of short musical pieces like "The Holly and the Ivory" (it's supposed to be "ivy" -- geddit?).
A show like this stands or falls on the audience's love of the characters. Nuncrackers is a typical sequel, where the characters have already been developed and stretched to their limits in prior episodes. We're left with two-dimensional ciphers on the stage, their personalities long since played out: the Reverend Mother (Jaqualine M. Helmer) who's harsh on the surface but has a funky side, the ambitious Sister Mary Leo (Emily Phillips) who wants to be the first ballerina nun, the chaste Father who's treated as one of the girls, and the blessed Sister Mary Paul who hits the jackpot and uses her dodgy gains to do God's work.
There's a lot to love about this show, not least the lively choreography and a nifty swiveling set courtesy of technical director Richard Heffner (who literally gave himself a hernia building it). But it seems that the Footlight Players have chosen Nuncrackers because it's part of a familiar, popular series that will fill seats; still, that's no
excuse to select such a desperate collection of sketches without tightening it up.
At one point the Reverend Mother dismisses a broadcast gaffe, saying that "we'll fix it in edit." Live theatre has no such luxury, which is a pity for audiences stuck with a Christmas show in need of some serious trimming.