Bad Habits

Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical is a collection of sketches, songs and sight gags that work best when they're briskly paced and centered on a single character. During its many multiple-character scenes and lame segues, however, Dan Goggin's musical revue about the Little Sisters of Hoboken fizzles into a predictable, low-wattage talent show. And while the Jesters Dinner Theatre's production has its moments -- the daffily devoted Sister Mary Amnesia, for instance, never fails to amuse -- the two-and-a-half-hour affair would benefit from some streamlining and a stronger directorial hand.

In fact, director Scott Moore might want to pick up the pace from the very start. At a recent matinee performance, the house lights didn't dim until a quarter past the appointed hour, when several students of the Jesters' performing-arts school treated the audience to fifteen minutes' worth of jazzed-up Yuletide tunes interspersed, unfortunately, with a slew of announcements about upcoming attractions, season-ticket bargains and drink specials. Although it's always nice for younger performers to get the experience of strutting their stuff before a paying crowd, the routines they're compelled to execute here appear underrehearsed, and the nonstop shilling quickly proves tiresome.

After ten minutes' worth of banter from the main characters (a quartet of nuns and a lone robed priest doggedly work the crowd), the show finally gets under way -- some forty minutes after the advertised curtain time. Before long, it becomes clear that Goggin's basic premise -- that the nuns are taping a television special in a newly constructed broadcast facility paid for by winnings from the Publishers Clearing House giveaway -- is a thin, ill-conceived conceit. As a result, it's best just to sit back and enjoy those numbers that, however wobbly, manage to stand on their own.

Actress Emily Burrell leads the company with her portrayal of the perpetually wacky but well-meaning Sister Mary Amnesia. Early in Act One, Burrell wanders into the audience to offer some free Christmas gifts to patrons. Whether she's handing out Scratch N' Sniff Nativity scenes, Golden Rulers ("It's for measuring short little things," she innocently condescends to a randomly selected young man) or foreign-language greeting cards, Burrell elicits plenty of good-natured laughter. Burrell's light-and-fluffy turn is counterbalanced by Tara Sosna's strong-voiced portrait of Sister Robert Anne, a brassy New Yorker who resurrects some poignant memories while singing "Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn" and gets personal while twirling a red feather boa during the harmlessly risqué "All I Want for Christmas."

As Sister Mary Hubert, Jade Tiller lets it all hang out during "It's Better to Give," a rousing rock-style spiritual; Eileen Allis is a model of straight-shooting class as the Reverend Mother, especially during the solo "A Carnival Christmas"; and, despite his tendency to mug incessantly while his colleagues are speaking or singing, Jim Berthold is a hoot when, as Father Virgil, he gives us lessons in the art of fruitcake baking. In addition, a stalwart group of young performers contributes some nice atmospheric touches throughout, and the entire company has fun peddling various wares over the Catholic Home Shopping Network, belting out a Village People parody ("C-O-N-V-E-N-T/The convent has been good to me!") and warbling a tender "Christmas Sing Along."

Given that Act One and Act Two run ninety minutes combined, the show would probably be more entertaining if it were performed without an intermission. Even so, the storefront theater's down-to-earth atmosphere stands in sharp -- and welcome -- relief to the cheesiness one encounters at some of the area's more established dinner theaters. With some heavy doses of polish and professionalism, the Jesters' down-home approach might someday give the competition a serious run for its money.

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Jim Lillie