BWW Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Ogunquit Playhouse
Whether you know "whodunnit" or not, you're bound to enjoy this rollicking MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS adapted by Ken Ludwig at the Ogunquit Playhouse. Fans of Agatha Christie, or murder mysteries in general, will find plenty of false identities, red herrings and over-the-top suspense to keep them guessing till the infamous mustached detective Hercule Poirot (a pitch-perfect Steven Rattazzi) inevitably solves the crime.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is the playhouse's first non-musical production mounted under artistic director Bradford T. Kenney, and the team doesn't let him down. Tony Award-winning Broadway set designer Beowulf Boritt has transformed the historic Maine summer theater into the famed luxury overnight train complete with steam engine, red velvet and brass dining car, and sleeping berths. Tony Award-winning Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long has enhanced the 1934 setting with exquisite period glamour and unique character touches that differentiate between the royals and the rubes on board.
Projection designer Jason Lee Courson deserves a special shout-out for his immensely clever use of the front curtain which syncs movement of the train's exterior with sound designer Kevin Heard's whistles, engine lurches, and clickety-clack. When the train, its passengers and crew are almost immediately snowbound on their way to Europe from Istanbul, the audience can almost feel the concern and the cold as a lifelike blizzard rages through the night woods.
All of this delicious detail creates the perfect threatening backdrop for Ludwig's smart comic character tweaks to Christie's already quirky suspects. Helen Hubbard (a very funny Ruth Gottschall) is the quintessential ugly American who sings loudly to her radio and keeps fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett (a menacing, mob-like Andrew Dits) awake at night. After Ratchett is summarily found dead in his sleeping compartment which adjoins Mrs. Hubbard's, Dits is quietly resurrected, now playing the officious British Colonel Arbuthnot, a seemingly too-friendly companion of the meek governess Mary Debenham (Patricia Noonan).
When Miss Debenham's life is now also suddenly put in jeopardy, Rattazzi kicks his Poirot into high gear, determined to sniff out the frustrating inconsistencies muddying the case. How do the affable Countess Andrenyi (Kate Loprest), the imperious Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Anita Gillette) and her bumbling assistant Greta Ohlsson (Anna Tempte) fit into the mystery? What did Michel, the Conductor (Olev Aleksander), the train's manager, Monsieur Bouc (Christopher Gurr), and Ratchett's assistant, Hector MacQueen (Stephen James Anthony) see and hear that they aren't telling?
Rattazzi, seemingly born to play the dogged inspector, builds his excitement as the puzzle builds in complexity. His self-satisfaction reaches a crescendo once he knows he has solved it. His ultimate revelation is a painstaking tease for his fellow passengers and the audience. He is like a maestro leading us note for note to the climactic conclusion. His is a bravura performance, as well as a very entertaining one.
Everything about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is paced beautifully, and director Shaun Kerrison keeps the detailed exposition humming along smoothly. He has drawn out finely etched individual performances from his veteran cast, and he clearly has encouraged playful ensemble work, as well. The comic interplay between Gottschall and Gillette, for example, is subtle but very effective in establishing their clash of personalities and social status. The surprise twists and secret identities are also never telegraphed, so even those Agatha Christie fans who think they know whodunnit, really don't.
At the curtain call, the train itself rightly gets the final bow. Hopefully the success of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS will encourage Ogunquit Playhouse to find other suitable non-musicals to add to their extended season line-up.
(PHOTOS courtesy of Ogunquit Playhouse)
Based on the Agatha Christie novel, adapted by Ken Ludwig; director, Shaun Kerrison; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; lighting design, Richard Latta; costume design, William Ivey Long; sound design, Kevin Heard; wig, hair and make-up design, Emilia Martin; projection design, Jason Lee Courson; production stage manager, Karen Parlato
Cast in Order of Appearance:
Hercule Poirot, Steven Rattazzi; Head Waiter, Olev Aleksander; Colonel Arbuthnot, Andrew Dits; Mary Debenham, Patricia Noonan; Helen Hubbard, Ruth Gottschall; Hector MacQueen, Stephen James Anthony; Monsieur Bouc, Christopher Gurr; Michel, the Conductor, Olev Aleksander; Princess Dragomiroff, Anita Gillette; Greta Ohlsson, Anna Tempte; Samuel Ratchett, Andrew Dits; Countess Andrenyi, Kate Loprest
Performances and Tickets:
Now through August 31, Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main Street (Route 1), Ogunquit, ME; tickets are available at the Box Office, online at www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or by calling 207-646-5511.