BWW Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS Satisfies at Alley Theatre
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is one of Agatha Christie's most beloved mysteries featuring her most famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It's a classic of the genre, and has been made into many Hollywood and television movies. This current staging by The Alley Theatre is a gorgeously designed love letter to the original material, and features a swift moving script adaptation by Ken Ludwig. This one has everything you could want - broadly drawn characters, exotic settings, and a spectacular murder with no shortage of suspects. It's a great thriller to chill you off this summer.
In MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS Hercule Poirot is on vacation after a particularly troubling case, but he's called back to London unexpectedly. His method of travel is catching the famous Orient Express in Istanbul. He meets many of the passengers and a personal friend at a hotel before boarding. The train is unusually full but through the acquaintance who is high up in management of the travel company he secures a first class cabin. The locomotive is stalled out by snowdrifts and the unthinkable happens. The passenger in the room next to the great detective is found savagely stabbed to death. He deducts the killer is still on board, and the race is on to solve the case before the police arrive.
The cast is asked to portray a group of diverse passengers on a train with various nationalities and accents. To the credit of The Alley Theatre they have chosen to do this with a colorblind sensibility to add even more exotic angles to the mystery. Audiences will love the campy characterizations that this company brings to the stage. Local favorite Susan Koozin portrays Princess Dragomiroff an aging Russian royal family member. Koozin gets some of the best moments of the evening with her dowager class glares and sharp one-liners. Estee Burks brings an amazing amount of elegance to her role of Mary Debenham. Elizabeth Bunch seems to be having the most fun with her portrayal of Helen Hubbard, a Minnesota cougar who may or may not be all she seems. Chris Hutchison is effectively creepy as the brash American Samuel Ratchett, and Dylan Godwin as his traveling companion is a fun twitchy mess. The entire ensemble is really quite good and adept at putting on these characters that ask you to be sincere yet over the top simultaneously.
This big question hovering over the show is how good is David Sinaiko who has been cast as detective Hercule Poirot? He delivers a strong performance that incorporates the tropes of this fictional character with nice flourishes that are all his own. He makes the accent and the look work, and they do not feel like impersonation at any point. He seems smart, engaged, and this makes the miraculous leaps of deductions seem plausible. He achieves what Agatha Christie did time and again in her writings - make the impossible seem quite possible. He injects the right amount of remorse at the climax in using his skills to solve what in the end is one of Christie's more disturbing resolutions.
As much as the ensemble carries the show, it's the physical design that also contributes immensely to what makes MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS so impressive. The two story stage has the train car on top, and is marvelously realized with Art Deco flourishes and 30s styling. Below on the floor the space transforms into a variety of locales through the use of excellently orchestrated set changes. It's stunning work, and Michael Locher is an amazing scenic designer. Raquel Barreto's costume design equally matches the setting's attention to detail and opulence. Director Rob Melrose incorporates all of these elements into an effervescent fun tone, but then knows when to get darker and deeper like a true master. Technically this train is amazingly well done.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is above all else a whole lot of fun. In contrast to the most recent movie adaptation from 2017 it is better paced and not quite as heavy handed. The Alley Theatre has given it plenty of style, but also managed to make the whole affair seem a little pulpy and more entertaining. It has a camp sensibility but at the same time still works as a thriller. It's a good argument that you don't need to sacrifice one for the other, and an excellent recipe for a summer show. Audiences should have a great time on this journey.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS runs through August 25th in the Hubbard Theatre at the Alley. More information and tickets can be found through their web site at www.alleytheatre.org . You can also call them at (713) 220-5700.
Photo by Lynn Lane