BWW Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Desert Theatreworks is a Great Deal of Fun
Desert Theatreworks (DTW) has mounted an excellently acted, enjoyable, comedic production of Ken Ludwig's 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. The script drags in spots, but director Lance Phillips-Martinez has created a visual feast that keeps the audience's attention.
The story will be familiar to anyone who has read the novel or seen the 1974 or 2017 movies. For those few who don't know the source material, the plot is a whodunit regarding the 1934 murder of a gangster on the Orient Express train somewhere in snow-covered Yugoslavia. Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (played brilliantly by Shel Safir, a newcomer this season to DTW) is faced with the equivalent of a locked room mystery; the train has been snowbound since before the murder, and there are no footsteps or tracks nearby. Why does the murder of a child from a wealthy family keep popping up in the investigation? Why do some of the passengers appear to be connected to each other? Poirot must answer these questions to solve the killing.
As I indicated, the acting by the ensemble cast is excellent, as is the direction by Lance Phillips-Martinez. For example, gangster Samuel Ratchett, the murder victim, played by Lee Padick, dies early in the first act, but Mr. Padick makes the small role memorable with a panic attack experienced by the odious Ratchett. On the night I attended, Mr. Padick additionally had to cope with a technical malfunction that he expertly handled. Shirley LeMaster also masterfully plays the comic role of the obnoxious Helen Hubbard, hilariously ordering everyone around in a grating Midwestern accent. The other eight members of the top-notch cast, Kevin Barry, Renee Bourgeau, Laura Bloom Farber, Robert Guenther, Stephanie Jauregui, Hal O'Connell, Eddie Stephens, and Tessa Walker, includes several newcomers to DTW. The company is fortunate to have them.
The visuals in this production are fabulous, including Daniel Grey's set design, projections designed by Nick Wass, and Michelle Mendoza's steampunk costumes. Although the events take place in the pre-World War II era, the costumes contribute to the mysterious feel important in a whodunit. The set design contains just enough linearity to remind the audience that events are occurring on a train. Mr. Grey orients some of the sets, such as the observation platform, at angles to the main train set, instead of in line with the cars. This allows him and Mr. Phillips-Martinez to use much more of the stage area than would otherwise be possible. The monochrome projections, Tessa Walker's sound design, and Phil Murphy's lighting also contribute to the atmosphere; most of the production is literally dark. The music between scenes keeps the audience's interest while the stage crew makes the complex set changes.
The only nit I have to pick is that Lee Padick's sideburns looked fake - they were far too dark for his brown hair. Nevertheless, this is a minor point.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is certainly not a deep play with commentary about the human condition. However, DTW's production is a highly enjoyable way to spend two hours.
The technical crew consists of Tess Walker (technical supervisor and sound design), Michelle Mendoza (production manager, costumes, props, hair), Phil Murphy (lighting design), Kaylyn Bernal (stage manager), Adriana Reyes (assistant director), Nathan Verdell (sound operator), Donnie Earl Jr. (assistant stage manager), Brian Montoya (backstage crew), Nick Wass (projections), and Maddox Martinez and Victoria Mendoza (light operators).
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS will run through November 24, 2019. Evening shows are at 7:30. Matinees are Sundays at 2:00 p.m. All performances take place at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo Street, Indio, CA 92201. Check the ticket purchase information at www.dtworks.org for specific prices and schedules or call (760)980-1455.
Coming up next is MARY POPPINS, from December 6-22, followed by BEEHIVE: THE 60's MUSICAL, from January 10-26, 2020.
PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Hayashi