If even the thought of Ebenezer Scrooge makes you grouchy and Christmas carols make you cringe, fear not. Area theaters have you covered with holiday-free drama and comedy that will get you into a celebratory spirit — unrelated to the season.
Lyric Stage is presenting “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express” (Nov. 22-Dec. 22, www.lyricstage.com), an adaptation of the whodunit classic by playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor”). Although Ludwig is best known as a master of farce, director Spiro Veloudos says the play does not contain any goofy comic elements.
“It’s a murder mystery,” Veloudos says, “so it has to have a certain menace. The comedy emerges from the characters who find themselves stuck on the train together. They are quirky and fascinating, and they drive the story.”
The voyage of a motley crew of characters crossing Europe is interrupted by the murder of one of passengers. As the train rolls on, it’s up to the fastidious Inspector Hercule Poirot — played by the incomparable Remo Airaldi — to solve the mystery.
Veloudos drew on a mix of Lyric Stage favorites, along with some new faces, for this production.
“It’s always fun to put together a combination of people I know well with actors who are new to me,” he says, “but with this show in particular, it’s important that they be perfect for their roles.”
The production, he says, uses a film noir technique to find the moments where the menace and comedy meet.
“There are darker qualities to the story that create tension,” he says. “I don’t want to assume people know the story, but even if you do, there’s room for surprise.”
At the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, the company’s new artistic director, Michael J. Bobbitt, makes his directorial debut with “Oliver!” (Nov. 29-Dec. 29, www.newrep.org), a musical based on another Charles Dickens tale. Although the story of the orphan boy who just wants more takes some dark turns, Bobbitt knows how to balance high-stakes drama with high-energy production numbers.
“I’m looking at Tim Burton, Edward Gorey, and Lemony Snicket as artists who know how to mix danger with kid-friendly entertainment,” says Bobbitt. “You only have to look at Disney’s ability to frighten kids while they also know they are safe.”
Bobbitt spent many years creating and producing theater for children at Adventure Theatre outside Washington, D.C., “so my focus has always been kids’ safety and well-being. I also think having kids onstage opens the world up to the kids in the audience.”
Bobbitt’s production features New York-based actor and director Austin Pendleton as Fagan, the fearsome leader of a band of petty thieves Oliver falls in with.
“It’s a terrific story with some delightfully colorful characters and some wonderful musical numbers,” says Bobbitt. “We’re presenting a cool, very theatrical interpretation.”
The Umbrella Stage Company continues its impressive debut season in its new theater space in Concord with “Tuck Everlasting” (Dec. 6-22, www.theumbrellaarts.org), a musical adaptation of the beloved novel by Natalie Babbitt. Nancy Curran Willis directs this tale of 11-year-old Winnie Foster’s adventures with the Tuck family and their secret to everlasting youth. This version of the story has music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen, with a book by Claudia Shear (“Dirty Blonde”) and Tim Federle.
In Providence, while “A Christmas Carol” plays upstairs, Trinity Repertory Company hosts the comedy “Fade” (Dec. 5-Jan. 5, www.trinityrep.org) in its downstairs space. Playwright Tanya Saracho, a Boston University grad, built her playwriting career in Chicago before joining the writing teams on “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Looking,” and “Girls.”
“Fade,” inspired by Saracho’s own early experiences as the only Latinx in the writers’ room, takes a funny and pointed look at Lucia, a Mexican-born novelist struggling to succeed in Hollywood, knowing she’s the “diversity hire.” When she forms a bond with the Latino janitor, Abel, the friendship takes some unexpected turns.
Boston’s man for all seasons
Remo Airaldi, who’ll be playing the fastidious Inspector Hercule Poirot in "Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express” at Lyric Stage, says the greatest gift a director can give an actor is time.
“Spiro [Veloudos] offered me the role early in the year,” says Airaldi, “so I had the time to read the original and see how much different it was from the various film versions, including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Kenneth Branagh and, of course, David Suchet’s portrayal in the TV series. The book is filled wonderful details, a lot of which aren’t onscreen.”
Airaldi, who appeared in 60 productions as a member of the American Repertory Theater acting company and has performed with nearly every local theater troupe, says he’s never been the kind of actor who identifies a role he thinks is perfect for him, nor does he need to be the star.
“What I love about Poirot is that he’s not the center of the piece,” Airaldi says. “He spends much of the play observing, hovering, and hanging out and then steps up for his big aria when he solves the case. But he’s persnickety, and that requires some subtlety, so he’s not a comic figure. To get there you have to have a lot of details about the character.”
Christie says about Poirot that “a speck of dust on his clothes would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”
“That,” says Airaldi, “gives me a lot to work with.”
But Airaldi always finds a lot to work with, continually surprising audiences with nuanced portrayals of characters often dismissed as secondary, including Mr. Mushnik in “Little Shop of Horrors,” Ben in “The Little Foxes,” Colonel Pickering in “My Fair Lady,” all at Lyric Stage; “Mistero Buffo” with Poets’ Theatre; Fennyman and the Apothecary in “Shakespeare in Love” at SpeakEasy Stage; and in eight productions of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s free Shakespeare on the Common. He shifts effortlessly between the vocal requirements of The Beadle in “Sweeney Todd” to the complexities of Clarence in “Richard III.”
“When I first left the ART company,” Airaldi says, “I was scared. There was a comfort in coming into a room with people you knew so well, but I’ve had the great good fortune to develop relationships with people across the theater community in Boston, and it’s not scary, it’s challenging and fun.”
Christopher Lloyd cast as King Lear
Actor Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future,” “Taxi”) will play the title role in “King Lear” at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox next summer. Hubris, greed, and jealousy are all on display when the aging king decides to step down and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Lear’s demand for expressions of love backfire and spark a disastrous disintegration of a once-mighty monarch and his family (June 28-Aug. 2, Tina Packer Playhouse).
The company also announced several other productions for the 2020 season. The outdoor Roman Garden Theatre will host “Much Ado About Nothing” (Aug. 11-Sept. 6), a comedy of love marked by witty repartee between the smart and savvy Beatrice and Benedict. The outdoor Dell at Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, will be home to a family-friendly, 90-minute version of “The Comedy of Errors,” July 7-Aug. 8. In Shakespeare’s raucous tale of twins, mistaken identity and physical comedy make for a lot of laughs. The remaining titles in the season, and full casting will be announced in the new year. For more information, go to www.shakespeare.org.