By Jacqueline Rupp, the Times
What do you get when you mix Charles Dickens, comedy improv and murder?
Well, throw in some audience participation, and dinner and drinks, and you’ve got a typical holiday weekend night for Without a Cue.
The theater production company puts on more than 250 murder mystery dinner theater shows a year. In Bucks County, the company is a regular year-round at places like Fisher’s Tudor House in Bensalem and the Cock ‘n Bull at Peddler’s Village in Lahaska.
As we move into holiday overload in the coming weeks, Without a Cue’s holiday murder mysteries offer an adult respite from the kid-centric activities that pervade most of December.
Expect a mix of traditional holiday cheer with more than a bit of bawdy humor — albeit nothing too naughty — thrown in for good measure.
On Friday and Saturday nights through Dec. 17, Fisher’s is home to Murder Under the Mistletoe, where guests solve a “whodunit” as Santa, Mrs. Claus, the elves and reindeer prepare for Christmas with a slight bump in the road.
It’s a newer show, just in its second year, while the company’s long-standing Dickens of a Murder is mounted at Cock ‘n Bull along with venues in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
In Upper Bucks, it takes place on Friday and Saturday nights through the rest of the year in a private reception room of the Colonial-themed Cock ‘n Bull.
Here, actors don elaborate Victorian garb, from a top hat and tails to enormously poofed skirts, all while singing, dancing and improvising their way through a double murder mystery — equally loaded with double entendre — that the audience is tasked with solving.
A three-course meal, of salad, breads, entree choices including roasted chicken and salmon filet and a cheesecake dessert is offered.
“Our Dickens murder mystery is loosely based around A Christmas Carol,” explained Traci Connaughton, founder and manager of Without a Cue. “It’s really what comes after the story we all know. There are some fantastic Dickensian costumes and this has really been a wonderful show for us over the years.”
The holiday murder mysteries have become a real tradition for the group, which does other seasonal shows, like their Once Bitten, Twice Dead show over Halloween.
“We have actors who only work the holiday season and they come back for that every year,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
With a background in arts administration and nonprofit development, Connaughton finds this type of “pure entertainment” theater extremely rewarding.
“It’s just a fun way to get some theater in. We’re interactive, we pull the audience up to be a part of the show and the meal is included,” she explained. “It’s just something really different and a good night out.”
That’s right: Audience members should come prepared to say a few lines or sing a few bars. But there’s no need to stress over whether they have the acting or singing chops of a Hollywood A-lister.
Far from it. During the opening-night performance at Cock ‘n Bull, the audience members who just tried their best got the biggest applause from the supportive crowd.
Ultimately, the vast majority of stage time — or lack thereof, seeing as the characters walk around the reception tables rather than on a separate platform — is handled by the well-tuned actors.
At Without a Cue, they’re a mix of professionals who split their time between here and other jobs and hobbyists with nine-to-fives during the week and performances on the weekends.
This time of year, the actors, along with production crew members, come together to bring a different kind of winter cheer.
“It’s such a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays,” said Connaughton.
“If you have a group of grownups who want to go out and enjoy a dinner and do something holiday-themed, it’s a very different way to make a lot of memories.” ••
Murder Under the Mistletoe takes place at Fisher’s Tudor House, 1858 Street Road in Bensalem, from 7 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 17. Cost is $51.99 per person and includes dinner, show, tax and gratuity. A Dickens of a Murder takes place at the Cock ‘n Bull Restaurant in Peddler’s Village, Routes 202 and 263 in Lahaska, from 7 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 23. Cost is $64.95 per person and includes dinner, show, tax and gratuity. For information, visit withoutacue.com.