DD Arts & Entertainment Review - Duluth Playhouse's Murder on the Orient Express
“The story you are about to witness is one of romance, murder, and the primal urge for revenge.” This opening line from the play “Murder on the Orient Express,” is delivered in an ominous tone from “world-famous” Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. With this dark pronouncement, the Playhouse audience was sent hurtling down the tracks on a wild ride.
Author Dame Agatha Christie penned over 60 detective novels, 14 story collections, and 19 plays. Her works have been translated into over a hundred languages, and more than 150 movies and television program adaptations have been made, making her the undeniable icon of the golden age of the English detective story.
Her beloved novel, Murder on the Orient Express, was adapted into a play by modern playwright Ken Ludwig, who the Christie estate commissioned, managed by her grandson, to choose any of her works to adapt.
Author of such popular shows as the musical “Crazy for You” and the play “Lend Me a Tenor,” Ludwig used his comic credentials to add humorous elements to Christie’s dark tale of murder on the famed, elegant, and opulent “King of Trains” Orient Express.
The train becomes a character itself, both in the novel and the play. Scene designer Ann Gumpper meets the challenges of effectively recreating passenger berths, hallways, a dining car, and the snowy landscape as a backdrop. Her proscenium-framing pieces give an elegant look with the theater’s red curtains and serve as an effective place to project the snow effects of a blizzard.
Traveling from Istanbul to Paris, the train gets caught in a blinding storm, and is stopped by the mounting snow, with the first-class passengers stuck far from civilization while they await rescue. It is then that a bloody, gory murder is discovered in a locked berth, and Poirot is hot on the trail to find out “whodunit.”
The crafty detective soon deduces, after finding out the true identity of the victim, that the murder is related to a famous American kidnapping case where a child, Daisy Armstrong, was kidnapped and later found dead.
Christie was fascinated by the real-life mystery and tragedy of the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and used many of the details from that true story as the connecting thread of “Orient Express.”
Knowing the story well of the Armstrong kidnapping, Poirot can start unraveling the threads of the mystery of the murder victim and his body full of stab wounds to discern who might have had the motive to kill him.
The colorful cast of suspects includes a young Englishwoman, a Russian princess, a Swedish missionary, a Scottish colonel, a train conductor, a Hungarian Countess, an American businessman, and an American divorcée.
The veritable United Nations of accents the show requires is handled with varying degrees of success. At times, the accents got in the way of clarity, clean diction, and an understanding of clues, making some comic lines fall flat.
Standouts in the eclectic group of possible murderers are Christa Schultz as the brash, loud, and obnoxious Minnesotan, Helen Hubbard. Schultz brings her considerable acting chops and comedic timing to the role. With her bright orange, satin dress, broad accent, and hip-swaying brashness, she commands every scene in which she appears.
Portraying the beautiful Countess Andrenyi, who also just happens to be a doctor, Playhouse newcomer Sarah Blossom was elegant in bringing the mystery and contradictions of her character to life.
Director Julie Ahasay has assembled a talented cast (of all local actors) to take this ill-fated trip. Ahasay’s direction makes this a fun guessing game for the audience as they try to become amateur detectives to figure out the murderer's identity.
Monsieur Bouc, director of the train company and friend to Poirot, becomes his “assistant” in sorting through the tangled clues and in dealing with all the idiosyncrasies and hysteria of the eccentric passengers. Michael Kraklio portrays a perfect, mostly calming presence who comically does have his own moments of sheer panic. His line delivery was always on point, with impeccable diction and projection.
Mike Pederson as the dandified Poirot, with the character’s iconic mustache, deftly portrays all the character’s fastidiousness, vanity, and ego.
Personifying Poirot’s reliance on his intelligence, conviction, and morality, Pederson makes strong comedic and dramatic choices. Ludwig described Poirot as having “ethics and eccentricities.” Pederson weaves both into his dignified detective.
There were a few instances of opening night wobbliness with a couple of miscues of raising train set pieces early, a clunky moving of a podium in the dark, and hesitancy in a few lines, but nothing that derailed the show.
Especially in Act One, the scene shifts of moving the train cars were slow and made the pacing slower. The show picked up steam, however, in Act Two.
The final dramatic scene, where Poirot gathers all the suspects to tell them who is guilty, was cleverly done with the repetition of significant lines that were important clues. One of Christie’s patented surprise twist endings brings the show to a satisfying close, with chaos restored to order, albeit with more than a little moral ambiguity.
The story’s inherent theatricality, Christie and Ludwig’s masterful writing, and an ensemble cast obviously having great fun in the storytelling, all made for an enjoyable mid-winter’s eve escape.
The show runs January 26- February 11. Most performances are sold out; a few tickets remain for select performances. For more information, call 218-733-7555 or visit duluthplayhouse.org
Next up for the Playhouse is the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical “Next to Normal,” running March 16-31.Tickets are on sale now.
Visit destinationduluth.co/ArtsAndEntertainment for arts profiles and other theater reviews.
About Sheryl Jensen - Arts & Entertainment Editor
A retired educator with the Duluth Public Schools, Sheryl Jensen has been a theater director of over 60 school and community productions. Her production of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at East High School won the National High School Theater award from the BRAVO television network.
Having written theater, music, dance, and opera reviews for the Duluth News Tribune for many years, she now is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Destination Duluth.