Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Asolo Repertory Theatre

By: Jan. 16, 2020

Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Asolo Repertory Theatre

Who isn't infatuated with trains - such a unique and even elegant way to travel. Although these coaches aren't leaving from Platform 9 ¾ for Hogwarts and your fellow passengers won't be Harry Potter and his curious classmates, the ride will be just as thrilling, if not more so. You'll be joining the infamous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and a host of very cleverly enigmatic travelers aboard a train filled with mystery and a touch of mayhem. You may have taken this ride before but not quite like this. Asolo Repertory starts its winter season on the fast track with Agatha Christie's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, featuring a new off the rails adaptation by two-time Tony Award-winner Ken Ludwig and pushing full steam ahead with direction by Asolo Rep Associate Artist Peter Amster.

Most of us have read Agatha Christie's 1934 mystery novel featuring clever detective Hercule Poirot. It has since been paid tribute to via several stagings and films. Although we all know the storyline, what is it that beckons us back time and time again to this compelling production? Perhaps because it is such a well-crafted piece of literature astute in details, resplendent in art deco designs and richly populated with intriguing characters. Who doesn't love a whodunit? Therein lies the true mystery! How does it keep drawing us back even when we know the ending! Yet another mystery to be solved by Mr. Poirot.

Let's go to our platform and board the Orient Express. A brief backtrack reminds us that our posh train boasting lavish amenities is headed from Istanbul to Paris but is stopped in Yugoslavia by heavy snowfall blocking the rails ahead of us. Then, the unthinkable! A murder is discovered, but low and behold the famous sleuth Poirot himself is onboard with us. Poirot jumps into action with all of his investigative fortitude and before we get to the end of the line, he sets us on the right track and voila - mystery solved!

Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards states, "But what may surprise audiences is how Ken Ludwig brilliantly took Agatha Christie's original masterpiece and infused it with even more wit, charm and humor. To have Ken Ludwig's brilliant adaptation brought to life by our own resident master of comedy, Peter Amster, makes this production a must see theatrical treat!"

Director Peter Amster's previously helmed Asolo Rep's productions of A Doll's House, Part 2 (2019); Morning After Grace (2018); Born Yesterday (2017); Living on Love (2016) and The Matchmaker (2015). His work has been seen at Steppenwolf, the Goodman, the Court, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival, ACT, and more. "There's something about a well-crafted murder mystery that is always thrilling, entertaining, and surprisingly soothing," said Peter Amster. "The stage becomes a world where a mystery is actually solved, where bad people are brought to justice, where order is restored. It doesn't happen often enough in the real world especially now but at least in the theatre, we can come together and, in a way, see what it's like when some form of justice prevails."

James DeVita (Hercule Poirot) makes his Asolo Rep debut this season. He is a veteran member of the American Players Theater acting company, where he has appeared in Blood Knot, A View From the Bridge, The Seagull, Of Mice and Men, and more. Mr. DeVita is brilliant as Poirot. If Robin Williams was playing Poirot, then every inch of the stage and every breath that DeVita took was Williams in the flesh - quirky, calculating, savvy and charming. His mannerisms, mumblings and quick wit bring this character alive in a whole new way. You clearly see Poirot's soft side, enamored with a beautiful female passenger, as well as his shrewd analytical side - leaving no stone unturned and no passenger without conjecture. Bravo Sir.

Impressive as an ensemble, David Breitbarth as railroad manager Monsieur Bouc, Diana Coates as Countess Andrenyi, Peggy Roeder as Princess Dragomiroff, and working that Minnesota accent Tina Stafford as Helen Hubbard, add so much dimension to their roles and carry the story brilliantly as each have something big to hide. Hmmmm...

Returning Asolo Rep favorites include David Breitbarth (Monsieur Bouc), who has appeared in more than 80 productions at the theatre and is embarking on his 24th season, Matt DeCaro (Samuel Ratchett), returning for his fourth season, and Peggy Roeder (Princess Dragomiroff), returning for her ninth. The cast also features Grant Chapman (Hector MacQueen), Diana Coates (Countess Andrenyi), Helen Joo Lee (Mary Debenham), Cora Messer (Little Girl), Tina Stafford (Helen Hubbard) and Gregg Weiner (Michel the Conductor). Little Miss Cora Messer will grab your heart. Grab your tissues.

The set is designed by Paul Tate dePoo III, who created the set for Asolo Rep's critically acclaimed production of The Sound of Music. He also previously designed Evita (2017) and Josephine (2016). His work has been seen Off-Broadway, at the Muny, Signature Theatre, ODKorea and more. "In terms of motion, the scenic, lighting and projection departments are really working together to create that sensation on stage," said Paul Tate dePoo III. "In addition to the turns the set makes, there are special treatments in the windows that synchronize with lighting and video so that you really can't tell where one stops and the other starts. The design of the train is a hybrid of Art Nouveau and 'turn-of-the-century' elements, with a real sense of craftsmanship as well. It almost has a nautical feeling to it, like a yacht on train tracks, and that certainly speaks to the grandeur that we are trying to capture."

Asolo Rep's production of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS also features original music by Gregg Coffin, who previously served as music director for Asolo Rep's Sweeney Todd (2019). He composed the original music for Asolo Rep's production of The Matchmaker (2015) and was the composer/lyricist for the OffBroadway production of Five Course Love.

Costumes by Tracy Dorman are a beautiful homage to my favorite era in time - art deco, a stylish trend distinguished by sleek lines and anti-traditional designs that prevailed across architecture, furniture, jewelry, clothing, toasters, ocean liners, and yes, even trains. To this day art deco is associated with elegance and sophistication. Dorman's designs as well as the rest of the incredibly realistic production setting is true to that time period and exudes refinement.

I won't give away too much because you need to see this production in its glory. The train design and how it is maneuvered is a marvel. The use of projections highlight the outside elements of being stranded on the tracks in darkness accentuated with falling snow. Each angle presented of the train garnered more and more appreciative applause. You will feel the biting chill of the crisp outside air, the ambient warmth of the inside cabins, and the suspicious angst of being stuck on a train with murder at the center of its journey.

But there's light at the end of the tunnel!

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS leaves the station in rotating repertory through March 8, 2020 in the Mertz Theatre, located in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.

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