Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Ogunquit Playhouse

By: Aug. 19, 2019
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Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Ogunquit Playhouse While it might seem sacrilegious to host a non-musical at the famed Ogunquit Playhouse, modern day audiences should know that the early years of the theater hosted a slew of non-musical productions. In fact, it was many years ago that I saw a production of Love Letters and an adaptation of Dracula.

After 12 years since the last non-musical, the Ogunquit institution is currently staging an adaptation of Agatha Christie's, Murder on the Orient Express, set for the stage by Ken Ludwig.

I, for one, think it is a great move for the theater and early signs show that this non-musical might well break sales records.

While there are many film versions of the murder mystery, the stage production is relatively new. It has all the elements of an intriguing crime with an investigation led by the famous investigator, Hercule Poirot (Steven Rattazzi).

It seems the express train has been caught in a snowstorm and will be unable to continue to its destination for some time. A murder takes place when an evil spirited passenger, Samuel Ratchett (Andrew Dits) is found stabbed eight times in the chest while sleeping in his train berth. It would appear that the murderer is still on the train and Poirot quickly interviews the handful of passengers who are the key suspects. It is an eclectic cast to say the least.

The passengers include a Russian princess, Princess Dragomiroff (Anita Gillette) and her companion, Greta Ohlsson (Anne Tempte), an overly religious missionary from Sweden. There's a brassy American actress, Helen Hubbard (Ruth Gottschall) who has a string of ex-husbands to her name and an outrageously beautiful Countess Andrenyi (Kate Loprest) who happens to be doctor. (This is quite convenient when investigating a murder scene.) A mild-mannered American traveler rounds out the suspects in Hector McQueen, (Stephen James Anthony), along with a mysteriously passionate couple, Colonel Arbuthnot (Andrew Dits) and Mary Debenham (Patricia Noonan), and Michel, the conductor (Olev Aleksander). The owner of the train company, Monsieur Bouc (Christopher Gurr) is eager to find the murderer knowing that a death on his train could be a public relations nightmare. He not so calmly assists Poirot in the investigation.
The plot takes an unlikely turn when Ratchett's true identity is revealed as a murderer in a horrific crime that left a young girl dead some time ago. As he questions the suspects one at a time, Poirot unravels a web where each suspect could have the means, motive and opportunity to have committed the crime on the train. In his typical style, Poirot resolves the crime in an epic scene that reveals who did the evil deed with all its intricacies played out and retold for the audience.

While I'm accustomed to my mysteries being played rather serious, this version of the Agatha Christie story is often played for laughs. It is a bit unnerving at first, but the fun spirit grows on you as the evening progresses.

Rattazzi is the ultimate Poirot. He's part imp, with a flair for the dramatic and a master of comic timing that keeps you giggling at the character. Gurr offers a delightful cohort in the crime solving scenes. He's amusingly frenetic that results in some great character interactions.

Gottschall, as the over the top spitfire, is wonderful as she spews a series of witty one liners while always eager to search for her next husband.
Portraying unlikely traveling companions Gillette and Tempte make the most of all their scenes professing their innocence in committing the crime. (But were they lying all the time?)

Dits and Noonan have some wonderful moments, as would be lovers, who might be sharing a secret or two about their past and remain secretive of their future plans. (Were they telling the truth all along?)

The remaining cast with Loprest, Aleksander, and Anthony each has their moments to shine when their interrogation scenes lead to twists and turns that at once convince Poirot that they are guilty, only to follow with indications that they are not. (Is anyone telling the truth here?)

Like any good mystery, all the loose ends are tied up by curtain call and the audience is left with that "Aha" moment where their suspicion of who did the crime is verified or denied.

If there is a star to be noted in this production, it is the staging and scenic design by Tony Award winner, Beowulf Boritt. The train, itself, is a masterpiece. Complete with ornate decoration of the time period (1930s) and intricate detailing in every way, the two train cars are wheeled and manipulated across the stage in various fashions throughout the evening. A series of panels and curtains move about the stage from scene to scene and there are many visual projections that give the impression of a massive train being transported across the countryside. Audio effects and lighting add to the illusion of elegance and grandeur of the stately train. Authentic period costumes complete the package for a visually stimulating experience.

So whodunnit? If you've seen a movie version of the script, you will know all too well. However, knowing the resolution of the crime doesn't lessen the journey that takes place in this delightful mystery solving experience.

Murder on the Orient Express proves that there is life beyond musicals that can grace the Ogunquit stage once again. I wouldn't be surprised if non-musicals become a trend as the theater starts planning for its 88th season in 2020.

Photo Credit: Julia Russell and Gary Ng