By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Dec 05, 2017 at 1:16 PM

Imagine this: Your theater troupe has a slew of Christmas shows to perform, but out of a 23-person cast, 20 of them have suddenly come down with food poisoning. That leaves three brave souls to act out all of the parts in a musical version of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" in front of a packed house. What are the actors to do?

Well, the show must go on – and hilarity ensues as the actors madly dash onstage and off, frantically changing costumes and wigs, and improvising dozens of parts they don’t normally play.

This is the premise for In Tandem’s current production, "Scrooge in Rouge," by Ricky Graham and Jefferson Turner. If it sounds a little familiar, it should: In Tandem’s first show of the season, "All the Great Books (Abridged)" used a very similar premise, as three mismatched staff members at a high school tried to summarize the biggest titles of English literature in 90 minutes.

While the previous show worked a little too hard for laughs, "Scrooge in Rouge" really earns them. Thanks to fantastic performances by the entire cast (all three of them), the show puts a fun and funny spin on material that is certainly familiar to audiences this time of year.

Set in an English music hall of a bygone era, the style is Vaudevillian, complete with singing, dancing, placards announcing each scene, an occasional bawdy joke and audience interaction. On top of the quick changes that keep the actors running, there are missed cues, goofy props and plenty of gender-bending, which is done extremely well here. Some gags are groan-worthy; some genuinely had the audience laughing. Perhaps best of all, the show keeps the basic story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas transformation intact, so you can get your holiday Dickens fix in a decidedly lighter genre.

Chris Flieller, who plays the company manager Charlie, sets the irreverent tone for the show from the very start by giving the opening speech from behind a portrait of the queen. In a smart red and gold vest, black tails and a festive red tie, he’s determined to make the show work, even under the extraordinary circumstances.

As Vesta, an actress who specializes in playing men’s roles, Elyse Edelman is also committed to her part – she is a particularly wicked Scrooge. With delightful cheek, she gives a little hop each time she delivers a pun or punchline as if to signal applause.

Nathan Marinan is Lottie, the limelight-seeking actress who fumbles her way through many supporting roles. In enormous dresses – and even a pink bathing costume – Marinan steals nearly every scene.

The three actors not only have great comic timing, but also impressive singing voices. Marinan, in particular, has a strong soprano – which you just don’t find in a lot of male performers(!). In addition to over-the-top comic lyrics that would make a serious Dickensian scholar weep, the trio performs a completely unrelated song about going to the seaside and a not-so-subtle number at the show’s end telling the audience to go home. In between, they form a miniature orchestra (with their accompanist/music director Josh Robinson) playing the kazoo, slide whistle, triangle and ukulele, none of which seem a bit out of place.

In a show where so many traditions are being comically discarded, James Zager’s choreography stood out as delightfully appropriate to the music hall era – even better because it was expertly performed. The trio of actors filled the stage with intricate footwork and made each move look effortless.

Kudos also to Kathy Smith’s costume design, which was both practical (lots of zippers for easy quick changes) and plausible – even when it was supposed to be preposterous. Sure, Scrooge spends the show in his trademark nightshirt and cap. But the image of Chris Flieller dressed as a beautifully trimmed Christmas tree is one that will stay with me forever, as will Nathan Marinan’s very pregnant Mrs. Cratchit, dancing exuberantly across the stage.

In "Scrooge in Rouge," director Jane Flieller has crafted a fractured fairy tale that’s very much on point. Be sure to add this show to your Christmas list.