For holiday season, orphans channel Dame Agatha
BOSTON – In the 20 years that Ryan Landry and his Gold Dust Orphans have been making theatrical magic in the space on the lower level of the Machine nightclub that Landry cheekily renamed “The Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts,” there was a gaping hole in their resume.
Landry and the troupe had never before attempted a murder mystery, an enduring and popular theatrical genre. Cross another one off the bucket list.
“Murder on the Polar Express” is a delightful holiday-flavored mash-up of two Agatha Christie thrillers: “Murder on the Orient Express” and “And Then There Were None.” featuring the Orphans’ famously off-color shenanigans, plenty of music and dancing, all topped off with a heaping helping of political incorrectness and near-constant laughter.
The plot begins with a very randy and often overbearing Santa Claus (Tim Lawton), who is trying to employ Landry (the famed “she-dective” Shirley Holmes) and her capable assistant, Dr. Jody Whatley (Qya Marie). Santa is facing having his final ticket punched and there’s the matter of $8 million he is offering the sleuths to come to his aid.
Holmes decides not to take the case but is finally forced into action when Santa is found stabbed through the heart with 11 icicles, and everyone on board is suddenly a suspect.
All of your favorite Christmas characters are suspects and Landry, one by one, provides them with motives that could have seen them ice Santa.
Then, one by one, the suspects bite the dust, knocked off in the most unusual and hilarious ways. Landry admitted to being challenged in tying up the various threads of the story.
Larry Coen directs and doubles as The Grinch, irate that boyfriend Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Gene Dante) has had a dalliance with Santa, in an effort to move up in the reindeer pecking order and possibly be in position for a financial score should the bearded one bite the dust.
Casey Preston as the impossibly buff Porter is the favorite of many on board, especially Dr. Watley, who is most appreciative of his charms.
The voluptuous and seductive Suzy Snowflake (Shana Dirik) has been riling up the males on board, including the hilariously horny Frosty the Snowman (Matthew Lazure), who (spoiler alert!) even suffers a Margaret Hamilton-type ending.
Herbie the Elf (Alexander David) is also on board as an assistant to Santa, and Tad McKintterick as The Little Drummer Boy. There being no sacred cows in Orphanland – as if previous titles such as “Thoroughly Muslim Millie” hadn’t tipped you off – The Virgin Mary (Sarah Jones) is also on board, a suspect to boot.
Jessica Barstis brings the heroine Princess Ella of the Disney blockbuster “Frozen” to life., while the Hub Theatre Company’s Lauren Elias is a revelation as Barbara Streisandberg, in holiday form as The Little Match Girl.
The Glitterpuss Dancers – Meredith Langton, Briana Scafidi, Gary Croteau and Gabriel Nesser – are a four-member dancing chorus full of energy and enthusiasm who add some pizzazz to the production numbers, aided by a half-dozen costume changes by the indefatigable Scott Martino, whose costume designs and set design (Victoria and Ken Dowd also worked on the set) alone would be a reason to see the show. Martino even chips in onstage as the not-so-lovable Mrs. Crachit from “A Christmas Carol.”
Landry’s cleverness continues with the score, knockoffs of tunes such as “I Really Need This Job” and “Phantom of the Opera” with lyrics repurposed for his his own motives, and a cast that includes several strong voices, including those of Marie, Dante and Dirik, to name just three.
There are hilariously effective if low-tech special effects and little touches, such as a shelf where, once the suspects start dropping, elves start dropping off one by one, a la Christie’s play.
The Orphans have upped the ante on production values with Garrett Herzig’s effective projections.
Landry, who always goes for the jugular when it comes to getting laughs, also always provides well-written, well-constructed pieces and along the way he’s been able to attract some of Boston’s finest actors and actresses to augment the regular members of the troupe, all to share his manic vision, this time of a holiday train ride that runs hilariously off the tracks.
“Murder on the Polar Express.” Produced, book and music by Ryan Landry. Directed by Larry Coen. Presented by the Gold Dust Orphans. At Machine, 1256 Boylston St., Boston, through Dec. 21. Tickets: $39.99-$49.99 (premium donor seating $100), www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2627363