PLEASANT GROVE — Most audiences are used to entering a theater, kicking back in their seats, and getting lost in a story. In fact, as a reviewer, I usually judge the quality of a production based on how much it transports me to another world. Usually. I would not call Nuncrackers—with music, book, and lyrics by Dan Goggin—an immersive experience, but the show works for other reasons. For one thing, its premise is hilarious: a convent of nuns in Hoboken, New Jersey is filming a Christmas TV special that includes cabaret-style singing and an excerpt from The Nutcracker. When the program goes awry, a night of chaos and laughs ensues.
If the show did not transport me, it grounded me in the room. I was more aware of my surroundings because the actors were, too, thanks to Howard and Kathryn Little’s direction. The cast started the show by going into the aisles and talking to audience members. The actors did away with any pretense that comes from pretending that there was no one in the room except for themselves.
That self-awareness in the show worked well given the environment of the theater. At the top of the musical, when Reverend Mother Mary Regina, played by Kelsey Mariner Thompson, welcomed the audience to the basement of their convent in a self-deprecating way, it rang true because the Pleasant Grove Players perform in a tiny theater on the bottom floor of a public library. Comedy works when it talks about life how it is—when it’s not glossy but honest about ordinary or painful truths. The match between show and production in this case felt honest, which gave the actors a strong foundation for their comedy.
Instead of pretending to be a show with lavish sets and costumes, Nuncrackers was DIY in the best ways. The walls of the set, designed by Tina Fontana, were adorned with small Christmas trees made of wrapping paper. One nun joked that they would have a live band accompanying them. She then confessed—like a good nun—that the music came from stage manager Emily Thompson pushing a button, but doesn’t she push that button so well? Courtney Varney’s costumes added some nice visual interest to a set that didn’t change; I especially liked the Santa-themed cowboy hats and nutcracker costume.
The talent, on the other hand, was not DIY. The voices in the chorus of nuns blended so well that I almost wished they would start singing The Sound of Music. Thompson nailed her comedic lines when she was matter-of-fact with them. Heavenly vocals aside, Greg Rampton as Father Virgil shined when he pretended to be the convent’s chef for the cooking portion of the TV Special.
My favorite moment from the cast came during the ballet. Throughout the whole dance, Sister Robert Anne, played by T’naiha Ellis, was seething because the other nuns would not let her do a solo in the show. Per Rebecca Boberg’s choreography, the dancers stood in a line and interwove their arms in front of them, grabbing each other’s hands. Somehow, in the mess of limbs, Sister Robert Anne ended up with no one’s hand to grab, leaving her hand dangling in front of her. It was barely noticeable, but the slip in choreography was enough to shake Sister Robert Anne out of her silent rage and into an irrepressible smile. Even more than Goggin’s quips and punchlines, which are not to be underestimated, what was most entertaining about watching this show, like all live theater, was watching the actors navigate new situations in the moment. Ellis was smiling in spite of herself, and it was a sin she did not have to repent of.
Speaking of sins, it’s not like the show was perfect. The pacing would sag occasionally, like during “The Christmas Box.” I even had a hard time catching the premise of the show: was it a radio or TV program? Sometimes they would be in the middle of performing, something would go wrong, and they would frantically ask to go off the air. Other times, a performance would crash and burn, and no one seemed worried about the “ON AIR” sign that faithfully burned red. Because some basic elements like plot and premise got muddled, I would be wary bringing children. It’s not necessarily the mild adult humor that would make me skeptical to take children; it’s that the show might not make much sense to them. The script is not catered to children, unless they would understand references to the Spice Girls or why fruitcake is so funny to joke about eating.
All in all, Nuncrackers did not whisk me away to any fantastical place with some fantastical story. The whole time I knew exactly where I was. The magic of this production is that it uses a mundane and cramped space as the site of so much humor. If the show wasn’t transportational, it was community-building. Nuncrackers was made by the community for the community, and it was a Christmas gift well-received.