The early evening blackness looms and the glow from the lights, 12 storeys below on Granville St, casts long shadows on the ceiling. The small, messy office space is under renovation, and musical director Scott Knight is putting an eight-member cast through some opening vocal exercises. He plays ascending scales on his portable keyboard, which they echo; eighth note for eighth note, triplet for triplet.
After a short pause, and some playful back and forth banter, the Raving Theatre acting troupe launches into a rendition of “Christmas Time is Nunsense Time” from their upcoming production of Nuncrackers! The Christmas Nunsense Musical.
“Ham it up,” Knight yells.
Nuncrackers is a silly, inconsequential, harmless little piece of fluff from the pen of Dan Goggin. It’s not going to make you ponderous, change the world or cause you to have epiphanies. It will, however, make you laugh and bring you some good holiday cheer.
This feel-good, populist approach has been turned into a veritable franchise of Nunsense sequels. There are five shows in addition to the original 1984 production, merchandise, sheet music, touring companies, and even set rentals. Notables such as Georgia Engel, Alice Ghostley and Vicki Lawrence have starred in various American stagings.
This production at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Norman Rothstein Theatre is a product of Raving Theatre. It’s a whole lot of ho ho hos, a jingly-jangly, twinkly, weepy, corny, occasionally Disneyesque, gender bending diversion with close to two dozen musical numbers. There are precocious orphans, an audience sing-along and knee-slapping moments like the Sister Julia Child of God cooking segment, “Fruitcake: the Christmas Gift That Lasts a Lifetime.”
A group of nuns, who are all played by gay men, win $1 million, build a TV studio and attempt to put on a Christmas special. Hijinks ensue. “There’s absolutely no story except that,” says Raving Theatre founder David Blue of the razor-thin plot. But does it matter? Blue, who plays the Mother Superior, saw the original Nunsense about 15 years ago, fell in love with it, and knew it would be fun to mount a production of the Christmas show because “it’s a hoot.”
Darrell Phillips, who plays Sister Hubert, had never done drag before except one disastrous Halloween years ago. It rained a lot that night, mascara ran and homo dreams were crushed. He says he was not a happy girl. Wearing a habit “doesn’t feel that different, though…. It doesn’t feel odd,” he says, but being a nun is not as glamorous as regular drag, he admits. And no, he doesn’t wear the outfit around the house.
Michael Croteau (Sister Robert Anne) who has previously appeared in the Raving Theatre productions Most Happy Fag in the World and A Fine Romance, reluctantly lets on that he’s “not really a Christmas person.”
As I stand there interviewing him, the sight of a hairy nun creeps me out, frankly. He assures me the beard will be shaved off before he hits the stage.
Nuncrackers is a Christmas musical with men dressed as nuns and women dressed as men and boys, playing at the hub of the Lower Mainland’s chosen people. Oi-vey! How’s that for a stroke of wacky irony? Perhaps there was some divine intervention from the comedy gods. Blue says he was originally planning to run the show on Granville Island but the venue wasn’t available.
For Deborah Allman, who was a standout playing the Zero Mostel role in a recent production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, gracing the Rothstein Theatre stage is a tad nostalgic. After all, the Vancouver native went to preschool at the Jewish Community Centre. She plays Father Virgil Manly.
As for fate giving her two roles in a row playing guys, “I may be taking over the gender bending scene in Vancouver,” she jokes. Take that, Buster Cherry and Devin! Allman, who is straight-not that there’s anything wrong with that-makes her first appearance in a Raving Theatre show. She was fantastic with the broad, bawdy humour of Forum. It will be interesting to see what she will bring to Nuncrackers.
The cast is rounded out by Jamie Foster (Sister Amnesia), and Casandra Cullen, Christina Menz and Billie Murphy, who play the kids.
Later in the rehearsal, the “children” are running through a little ditty called “Santa’s Teapot.” One of the cast members mentions a misprint in the lyrics and there is some concern that they are missing the timing and rhythmic flow of the song. As the last note fades, Knight has a few suggestions. “More diction, watch your volume,” he tells them.
He’s a classically trained piano major who counts Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein and Mandy Patinkin as musical heroes. “Can you believe he’s straight?” someone hollers from across the room. Knight too is pleased to be doing something light and fun for the holidays.
But it makes you wonder: how did a straight guy wind up in charge of whipping a bunch of cross-dressing fag nuns into musical shape to put on a show celebrating the birth of Jesus at the Jewish Community Centre?
Well, they do say truth is stranger than fiction. Am I right?