Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is Immensely Enjoyable at the Milwaukee Rep

Sumptuous & satisfying, this play is a perfect night of theater for lovers of the "whodunnit" genre

By: Jun. 07, 2022

Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is Immensely Enjoyable at the Milwaukee Rep

If you're a fan of the "whodunit" genre, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express is a classic. If you don't already know the identity of the murderer, don't you dare go snooping around the internet to find out -- the reveal is far too delicious, as is this entire Milwaukee Repertory Theater production.

Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig and directed by Annika Boras, this Milwaukee Rep play is immensely entertaining and stunning to behold. First, a note on what makes Murder on the Orient Express such a perfect package: it's suspenseful and full of intrigue, but it's all done with knowing theatricality and the perfect amount of levity. What's so enjoyable about a classic murder-mystery is that the stakes are never so high as to cause serious dread or horror. Fans of this genre don't wish to be truly frightened -- they want to be intrigued to the edge of their seat. Murder on the Orient Express delivers.

It does this via a wonderful cast of true characters. As with other such stories, there's a vibrant array of personalities: a Russian princess, a Hungarian countess, a brash American, a Scottish colonel, and more. All of these climb aboard the Orient Express in Istanbul, along with renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. As the title gives away, there soon follows a murder, and the only suspects are those on the train.

The entire show revolves around Poirot and his famous mustache, at times literally. The cast sets the opening scene with marvelous choreography by Jacqueline Burnett, whirling around the center-stage Poirot to bring an Istanbul café to life from nothing. Theatrical moments like this are exciting, as is the reveal of the glorious Orient Express when the curtain finally drops.

The impressive train is situated on a rotating stage and is outfitted with luxury. As the scene spins, the train compartments seem to grow with every turn. Shoutout to scenic designer Luciana Stecconi, lighting designer Noele Stollmack, and sound designer Andre J. Pluess for creating such a stunning vehicle for the action -- for yes, all of the action is confined to the on-stage train. The team has done a remarkable job of containing the story and creating the illusion of a truly constricted space -- one that both victim and murderer alike can't escape.

While the staging is a huge draw, the Rep's Murder on the Orient Express is also matched by the caliber of its cast. Steven Rattazzi delights as the pleasant yet principled Poirot. Gail Rastorfer enjoys laughs galore as the brazen Helen Hubbard, complete with thick Minnesotan accent. Diana Coates and Barbara Robertson bring poise and passion as the Countess and Princess, respectively. Park Krausen is particularly colorful as the hyper-anxious, God-fearing Greta Ohlsson, as is Will Mobley as the anxious Hector MacQueen. Emjoy Gavino is lovely as the unassuming Mary Debanham, and Adam Poss nicely adapts to his multiple roles.

While all of the above are making their Milwaukee Rep debut, two are returning: Gregory Linington as Monsieur Bouc and Jonathan Wainwright as Colonel Arbuthnot/Samuel Ratchett. It's so nice to see these familiar faces after a pandemic-long hiatus, and both are brilliant in their own right. Wainwright must play two key roles -- something that may cause a little confusion for those in the audience who notice. In the end, it seems this is a casting device and not a plot device.

Every last character is dressed in lush, exquisite costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg. Rich colors, expensive-looking details, impeccable suiting -- it all adds to the sumptuous tableau. The entire production is always ready for its close-up. And that's part of what makes this such a fun night of theater: You're transported to another time and place, exotic yet familiar with a thrilling murder-mystery to solve.

If you're inclined to think "if you've seen one Agatha Christie, you've seen them all," you'd be mistaken and very much missing out. The Milwaukee Rep's Murder on the Orient Express is a treat not just for its wondrous production value and amusing personalities -- the story itself is surprising and immensely satisfying. More of this, please.

Murder on the Orient Express
is playing at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater now through July 1st, 2022.