Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” at Meadow Brook Theatre, Rochester Hills MI
Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Illustration by Chet Johnson
Photo by Sean Carter
All Aboard for Chills and Thrills on “Orient Express”
Even if you’ve seen any or all of the various incarnations of this story on film and TV, “Murder on the Orient Express”, Meadow Brook’s 54th season opener, feels fresh and full of surprises, beginning with the frightening first scene. Acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor”) was commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write the very first stage adaptation of her iconic mystery novel especially for the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton NJ. It was presented in March 2017. As of October 2019, it currently has dozens of productions being presented in cities all over the U.S.
Meadow Brook’s production features breathless suspense and action onstage so engrossing that the intermission seems to arrive much too soon, and you can’t wait for the second act to begin. Ludwig’s compact script includes a cast whittled down to just 12 characters. Running at a brisk 2 hours, it chugs along at a breakneck pace, liberally infused with humor and silly bits. The pre-recorded score features spellbinding music in an elegant nod to Halloween.
It’s winter 1934, in Istanbul, and renowned detective Hercule Poirot is on vacation. He receives an urgent message to return to London immediately on the Orient-Express. Soon enough, a snowdrift is blocking the tracks, there’s a murder to solve, and every single passenger onboard could be the killer.
The cast in this classic whodunit performs well as an ensemble. Each one has their illuminating moment, all coming together at the end as the mystery is revealed. As Poirot, Ron Williams has an air of harmless eccentricity, walking with mincing, almost painful steps. He carries the role with restrained authority, although he underplays the part, lacking a certain inner fire. The character Poirot has always seemed to possess a burning intellect and curiosity barely contained by his obsessive need for control.
Stephen Blackwell delivers fine performances in dual roles as the sinister Samuel Ratchett and the passionate Scotsman, Colonel Arbuthnot. Ruth Crawford offers a commanding presence as the exiled Princess Dragomiroff, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Downton Abbey’s Lady Violet, but with a Russian accent. The irascible Princess trades snipes with brassy American broad Helen Hubbard, played with scene-stealing charm by Lynnae Lehfeldt. Craig Bentley is authentic and a steadying influence as Poirot’s longtime friend and railroad executive Monsieur Bouc. Also noteworthy is Cheryl Turski’s compelling performance as Countess Andrenyi. Rounding out the talented cast is Chip Duford, Hannah Niece, Sara Catheryn Wolf and Peter C Prouty.
Scenic Designer Brian Kessler’s set (except for the opening scene) consists entirely of two railroad cars: a sleeper car and a dining car, plus a caboose. The cars, with actors inside, rumble back and forth across the stage in a very realistic fashion. While the slightly drab set fails to project the opulence and beauty of the real Orient-Express, it is nonetheless a compelling bit of stagecraft in motion. Costumes by Corey Collins effectively evoke the period, with a few really lovely dresses worn by upper-class ladies. Reid Johnson’s lighting, and especially Mike Duncan’s sound, are excellent complements to the proceedings. Falling snow is a nice touch – wonder who had to shovel it after the show?
Strong directing by Travis Walter is a testament to his skill, with taut pacing and creative tension in each scene. This is an especially challenging show to stage, because we must see inside the railroad cars, so walls have to be minimized or removed, calling on the audience’s suspension of disbelief even more than most productions.
When: Now through October 27, 2019
8:00 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; Saturdays Oct 12 & 26
6:30 p.m. Sundays
6:00 p.m. Saturday, October 19
2:00 p.m. Wednesdays & Sundays; Saturdays October 12 & 26
Tickets $36 to $46
Where: Meadow Brook Theatre at Wilson Hall
378 Meadow Brook Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48309