Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review of "Murder on the Orient Express"

The Agatha Christie mystery, “Murder on the Orient Express,” is one of the author’s best known and most intriguing.  It features the dapper Belgian detective Hercule Poirot at its center and a baffling murder on the celebrated train at its core.  The prolific playwright Ken Ludwig (this is the second of three shows he is having produced in Connecticut this year) has transformed the novel into a taut and dashing stage show, receiving a glimmering production at Hartford Stage.

The story is both simple and surprising.  Who stabbed to death the contemptible, secretive businessman during the early morning hours as the train hurtled through the Yugoslavian countryside?  Poirot who, by happenstance, is traveling on the train is called in to investigate.  With a bevy of international suspects to investigate and a multitude of inscrutable clues to sift through the famed sleuth needs all his “little grey cells” to solve one of his most puzzling cases.

Ken Ludwig has compressed the British author’s work, providing the essential plot lines and twists without sacrificing a well-played and gripping adventure.  He skillfully fashions a multitude of characters that are distinct and fully rendered. There is more humor then you would expect from a Christie yarn, but the mix of comedic moments and furtive machinations provide an intoxicating cocktail of excitement and danger.

The acting company is first-rate, filled out with many Broadway veterans.  While the entire troupe deserves recognition, there are two performers that need singling out.  At the top of the list is David Pittu, who brings a knowing perception and intelligence to the role of Hercule Poirot.  It is a masterful performance that binds the show together.  The actor puts his own unique spin on the renowned detective with highly satisfying results.  He is fussy, observant, and has a dynamic presence. 

The second performer of note is the actress Julie Halston, whose comedic talents and over-the-top histrionics are second to none.  Out of all the characters slinking around the first-class berth, Ms. Halston, as the loud-mouthed, outrageous American divorcee Helen Hubbard, shines brightest.  Be forewarned--as with many Agatha Christie novels what you see is not always what you get.

Director Emily Mann, who helmed an earlier version of the show at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, keeps the scenes lively and the production well paced, especially when factoring in the large moveable sets.  She deftly maneuvers the actors through the narrow train corridors and rooms with fluidity and flair.  Her staging of the climatic “who done it” scene is creatively and dramatically executed.

One of the other stars of the play are Beowulf Boritt’s sets, most notably the sleek, skeletal richness of the Orient Express.  The exactitude and detail of the train sections add a wow factor to an already entertaining production.

Darron L. West’s Sound Design adds an element of menace and foreboding with his musical interludes.  The other sounds, most notably those emanating from the train, add a degree of realism.

William Ivey Long’s period costumes are on-the-mark and help define each character’s persona and status in life.

Murder on the Orient Express, a thrilling and captivating whodunit, not just for Agatha Christie fans.  Playing at Hartford Stage through March 25th.

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