For four straight seasons, O’Connell and Company has been sending up little puffs of theater in a space too large for them to be appreciated.
The company’s 2009 move from an intimate theater in Snyder to a 400-seat auditorium on the Erie Community College campus in Amherst was touted as an ideal match at the time. It was not.
Thankfully for the company’s small but loyal fan base and for its smaller and even more loyal cadre of actors, the marriage has finally gone sour.
On Friday, after some two dozen productions to mostly empty houses, O’Connell and Company opened its final show in the outsized venue. It will head down the road to the Park School next season, where it will take up residence in a theater with about 120 seats, far more appropriate to the small-cast, small-scale and small-caliber material at which it excels.
The company’s halfhearted production of “Nunsense II: The Second Coming,” featuring an all-male cast milking a worn-out gimmick, illustrates all the reasons the company’s ECC connection was troubled from the start.
Plenty of its grade-school-level humor soared over the heads of the audience and landed with a thud against the distant auditorium walls. The production’s assertive, if not always on-tempo, band all but obliterated most of the cast’s unamplified lyrics. Despite the challenges of the auditorium, there’s no reason this problem couldn’t be solved by turning down the band or relocating it so that it does not compete so directly with the vocals.
A show like this – clunky, clichéd and half-hearted though it may be – would be far more likely to charm its way into our hearts in a smaller theater. Even so, not all of the blame for the underwhelming production goes to the venue.
The hand of director Mary Kate O’Connell is very little in evidence here, and the show seems in many ways to be rudderless.
Last year, O’Connell and Company, no stranger to Dan Googins’ viral “Nunsense” franchise of quirky musicals, mounted an engaging production of “Nunsense A-Men,” an all-male version of the original (and likely best) “Nunsense” production. That show, fueled by the originality of Goggins’ first and freshest entry into the “Nunsense” canon, succeeded in overcoming the constraints of the theater and the material because of the heart and talent of its cast.
Though that same cast is on hand for “Nunsense II,” adapted with Goggins’ permission to feature an all-male cast, the novelty of the gimmick runs out of steam not long after the opening number. The campy material, a collection of Catholic inside jokes and pastichey songs about life in the convent and the dreams that lie beyond, is like a pallid copy of the original. And the performances here, at least on opening night, were not nearly as confident or sure-footed as last year’s production.
Guy Tomassi returns as the Mother Superior, the straight nun to a comic collection of misbehavers. These include the aptly named Sister Mary Amnesia (Nick Lama), the aspiring ballerina Sister Mary Leo (Joey Bucheker), the second-in-command Sister Mary Hubert (Dudney Joseph) and Catholic comedian extraordinaire Sister Robert Ann (Josh Snyder).
The show has a few redeeming qualities, most notably a bit of audience participation involving a bingo game and a few numbers the cast really sinks its teeth into. Beyond that, “Nunsense II” struggles to duplicate the energy and enthusiasm of its first version, and this production doesn’t try very hard to rescue it.