Monday, November 12, 2012

American Heartland "Nuncrackers" review by T.Winchester

"Nuncrackers": A Habit-Forming Christmas Musical 
Rating: 4

American Heartland Theatre

The current Christmas production at American Heartland Theatre, "Nuncrackers" (a "Nunsense" Christmas musical) is musical comedy fun for the whole family. Historically, this is AHT's second production of this holiday musical; it also is a sequel to the original "Nunsense" musical. Since I am not a Catholic, and since I wasn't familiar with the original musical going into this one, I was concerned that I might miss out on something. However, after watching the original musical on YouTube, I soon learned that it really isn't necessary to know the first musical to thoroughly enjoy this Christmas offshoot, and the humor in it really transcends all denominational lines.

Here is the general plot: before the play has begun, the Little Sisters of Hoboken, whose numbers have been decimated by the accidental poisoning of their members by Sister Julia, Child of God (a play on the legendary television chef), have won the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. Their numbers are now reduced to only a few: the Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Regina (Debra Bluford); her sometimes-combative second-in- command, Sister Hubert (Jennie Greenbury); the wisecracking, Brooklyn-born Sister Robert Ann (Jessalyn Kinkaid); Sister Mary Amnesia (Liz Golson), who has a penchant for puppets and is not completely "right" after having a crucifix fall on her head; and Sister Leo (Kelsea Victoria McLean), who is supposed to play the Sugar Plum Fairy in the convent's version of "The Nutcracker" before spraining her ankle. With their winnings, they sisters have opened a basement studio in the Mount St. Helen's convent, where, assisted by Father Virgil (Ken Remmert) and several children, they are staging their first annual Christmas show in front of a live studio audience, making audience involvement and participation all a part of the production.

The sisters have been plagued with both misfortunes and windfalls in the past, and this history continues in their latest endeavor. Even though nothing goes off absolutely according to plan, the show must go on, with hilarious results. When Sister Leo cannot play a part in the Nutcracker ballet segment, both Reverend Mother and Father Leo costume themselves as outrageous Sugar Plum Fairies and attempt to "fill in" for their ailing colleague. When Sister Julia goes to the police station to file a report on the seemingly "stolen" convent's Christmas presents, Father Leo is conscripted to dress up as Sister Julia for the cooking segment, but he ends up getting drunk on rum while trying to show how to make a fruitcake. One running gag occurs when Sister Amnesia tries to coach the children in several Christmas carol numbers, but she keeps getting the words wrong ("leopards" instead of "shepherds," etc., in an homage to Mrs. Malaprop); when her merry band of carolers periodically crosses the stage, we cannot help but laugh at her woefully funny interpretations.

The versatile set features a live band at the rear, which makes the production all the more lively. A large set piece with holiday lights embedded at the back functions as Christmas lights and stars when appropriate. In addition to a "real" artificial Christmas tree onstage, three painted, revolving set pieces are used to illustrate a cozy fireplace interior, a miniature church (with stained glass window) / Christmas tree / nativity manger, and a small kitchenette for the cooking segment. Since we are a part of the "live studio audience," the cast members use the entire theatre space and go out into the seats at several different times (most notably in a "giveaway" segment where some audience members receive prizes and there is some creative ad-libbing). A high "balcony" at the top of the theatre is used in more than one scene, the actors sometimes sit on the edge of the stage, and they also enter and exit through the voms and from the rear of the upper levels. A production such as this allows for very creative blocking.

The performance itself seemed to get off to somewhat of a slow start, but once the exposition was complete and the plot picked up, so did the pace and our interest. As for the performances, Bluford is always hilarious and somewhat of a local theatre legend. I was wondering if she was feeling 100% on that particular night, since her first couple of songs seemed a little under par; however, once she got warmed up, she was just as great as ever. Greenbury belts out the final Christmas song with real soul, providing a tremendous finale to the production. As Sister Amnesia, Golson interpreted her role with the required innocence and over-enthusiasm necessary for her part. Kincaid's Brooklyn accent seemed just a tad stereotypical and overwrought, but her song about a bittersweet Christmas when she was a child was beautifully rendered and touching. And Remmert (who also plays in the band when he is not onstage) is delightfully funny throughout, as well as poignant when he sings a song about a Christmas gift that he received from a teacher when he was a child when his parents could not afford to buy him one. The children in the play were excellent; they all seemed polished and knew their parts extremely well.

There are lots of other great aspects of this production that are worth mentioning, including a very funny takeoff on the Shopping Network (a la "Catholic Shopping Network," complete with remote-controlled electric-shock haloes for sale), but to see them all you'll need to attend the production. The costumes, by the way are excellent and creative; sometimes, nun costumes can look very cheap, but these were great, as were the Catholic school uniforms; and there were many opportunities for the designer to incorporate eye- catching costume elements into this Christmas show. The production will be running until 23 December, so there is plenty of time to see it. No matter what religion or denomination you might belong to, "Nuncrackers" will help get you in the mood for the holiday season.

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