PROVO—Those New Jersey nuns made famous in Nunsense, the Little Sisters of Hoboken, have a new holiday show written by Dan Goggin.
In Nuncrackers, the nuns and Father Virgil are filming a public access Christmas special to raise money for the private Mount Saint Helen’s school. In the course of the show, the nuns sing, hand out Christmas gifts to audience members, make a fruitcake, and more. It sounds like an ideal show for fans of Nunsense. Unfortunately, Nuncrackers has little of the charm and originality of its predecessor show. Adding to the disappointment of Nuncrackers is the lackluster production at the Covey Center for the Arts.
The central problem with this production was the weak direction from Stewart Shelley. A meandering show like Nuncrackers requires a strong hand that maintains quick pacing and keeps the humor sharp. Unfortunately, Nuncrackers completely lacked a coherent artistic vision, and the result was a series of humorless vignettes that seemed unrelated and often pointless.
Additionally, the show desperately needed a choreographer. The dancing was credited to “cast collaboration,” and the result was sloppy, amateurish choreography (e.g., in “In the Convent” and “We Three Kings”) that was inferior to most Covey shows. A music director was also missing from the production team. This may be why most of the songs were either sung too sluggishly (“Three Hundred and Sixty-Four Days,” “It’s Better to Give Than to Receive”), had noticeable cast errors with the lyrics (“We Three Kings”) or didn’t seem to have the emotion behind the performance (“The Christmas Box”).
Perhaps because of a lack of artistic vision and direction, the cast all gave disappointing performances. The biggest flaw was that the cast members did little to distinguish their characters from one another. For example, the sharp streetwise wit of Sister Robert Anne (played by Jan Shelton Hunsaker) was dampened and hard to distinguish from the authoritative Sister Mary Hubert (played by Ericka Wilcock). The closest any of the cast members came to creating a unique character was Sarah Shelley’s Sister Mary Paul, known as Sister Amnesia because of a brain injury. Sarah Shelley had some of the funniest lines, and the naïve sweetness and wide-eyed look made stand out from the other cast members.
An additional problem with the acting performances was the fact that the performers were under-rehearsed. Every actor stumbled over their lines or lyrics at least once. The actors also seemed tired and lethargic as they performed, and the energy for the show was consistently low.
The only aspect of the production that I was completely happy about was Pam Davis‘s set design, which instantly evokes the perfect mood for Christmas. The beautifully decorated trees, color scheme, and white Christmas lights were ideal for a holiday production. A less pleasing technical element was the white projection screen which usually showed the view of a camera placed in the corner of the black box. This was probably to show what the “television audience” would see at home. But after the first few minutes the cast stopped playing to the camera, and instead acted as they would in any other play. As a result, the image on the screen was often distracting or showed backsides or silhouettes that did not work as television images.
All the production problems, though, pale in comparison to the problems in Goggin’s script and score. Almost every scene is a retread of similar scenes in Nunsense. Even the best scene of the show, when Father Virgil (played by Jim Wilcock) gets drunk when cooking, is an almost exact replay of the same joke in Nunsense. And every song is so uninteresting and forgettable that audience members will wonder if Sister Mary Amnesia’s condition is contagious. Although the original play is not a brilliant piece of art, Nunsense is charming and has its funny moments. It’s easy to see why the show is so popular. But because Nuncrackers is so stale and mundane, people who have never encountered the Little Sisters of Hoboken would leave this Christmas production bewildered by the popularity of this stage franchise.
So, it is apparent that Nuncrackers and the Covey production have little that I recommend. With a mediocre script and unimaginative score as the rickety foundation, the director and cast at the Covey Center could do little do bring much genuine holiday cheer to the Utah County stage this year.