Great Lake’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ might be this season’s show of the year
There are certain shows that particular theater companies are destined to excel at. The latest example is the absolutely fantastic Great Lakes Theater production of Agatha Christie’s “Murders on the Orient Express” now on stage at the Hanna Theatre at Playhouse Square. The show is wonderfully adapted to the stage by Ken Ludwig (who was given permission by the Agatha Christie Estate).
This show literally has it all...whodunit, masquerades, breakneck action, smart dialog, snappy comedy, fantastic lighting and sound, luxurious period costuming, a stuck train, compelling acting, spot on directing, a blizzard, fights and one of the most ingenious stage sets ever constructed for a show. In words, this is truly must see theater that the entire family will love.
The life of author Agatha Christie is fascinating in its own right. In 1926, Christie was already a well known mystery writer having conjured up such wonderful sleuths as Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. She had published her first crime novel in 1920 “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and had signed on with the William Collins publishing house in 1926. They would go on to publish her sixth novel, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in 1927 as well as the Miss Marple series in 1928 and “The Mystery of the Blue Train” (1928) that featured her already established Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
Things seemed to be going along swimmingly when as she put it, “illness, sorrow, despair and heartbreak” struck. Her mother had died, her 12 year marriage to dashing aviator, Archie Christie had deteriorated when she learned of his affair and in a state of deep depression she flew the coop for 11 days in December for what these days might be called a “mental health holiday”.
Agatha left her eight year old daughter, Rosalind, with a maid at their home west of London and drove off into the darkness. The next day, her car was found abandoned above a quarry in the next county with the headlights on and her still packed suitcase tucked into the back seat. During the entire stretch of her well publicized disappearance an intensive search was conducted. She was located on December 14th in the dining room of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate in the far northern county of Yorkshire (quite some distance from London) having tea.
Upon her return to London and following her divorce she resumed her social obligations and at a dinner party in the fall of 1928 was advised by a guest to travel to Mosul, Basra and Ur. She made her decision and five days later was on her way to Baghdad via The Orient Express. The trip was a tonic for her as she met a collection of characters on what was at the time the height of luxury of long distance transportation. The trip would inspire such titles as “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) “Murder in Mesopotamia” (1936) and “Death on the Nile” (1937). The trip also changed her personal life when she met archaeologist (later to be her future husband), Max Mallowan an assistant to Leonard and Katherine Wooley who were in the process of excavating the ancient city of Ur. They remained happily married until her death in 1976 at the age of 85.
Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot is on holiday in Istanbul when he receives a telegram urging him to return to London immediately. He has the concierge book a first class compartment on the Orient Express, the most opulent means of transportation at this time. When told that the first class compartments are sold out (even though it is the off season) his friend Monsieur Bouc (director of train operations in Istanbul) intercedes by surrendering his personal compartment in first class to Hercule.
Hercule’s fellow first class passengers include: Boisterous Wealthy American Helen Hubbard; English governess Mary Debenham; American businessman Samuel Ratchett, with his secretary/translator Hector MacQueen, Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff who is traveling with Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson; Scottish Colonel John Arbuthnot and former commoner married to royalty, the fetching Countess Andrenyi who has had medical training. This is how the passengers present themselves but all is not as it seems.
The wintry journey begins and as night falls everyone goes to their department to sleep. Helen Hubbard decides to drink instead and listen to jazz keeping Ratchett awake. Later that night Hubbard calls the conductor to report that she had seen a man in her compartment wearing what appears to be a conductor’s uniform. Suddenly the train’s progress is halted by a huge snowdrift. It is then that Ratchett’s body is found with eight stab wounds. The window to his compartment is open but there are no foot prints in the snow. An expensive blue handkerchief is found with the letter H embroidered on it. Other clues include a pipe cleaner, two types of matches (one that Ratchett used and “a mystery match”) and a charred piece of paper with “...member little Daisy Armstrong” written on it.
While examining the clues, Poirot remembers an American case where a gangster Cassetti kidnapped and murdered three-year-old Daisy Armstrong after collecting a huge ransom. The results of the crime had Daisy’s mother going into premature labor and dying along with the new baby, The father, Colonel Armstrong, committed suicide and the French nursemaid who was accused of collusion also kills herself only to be found to be innocent later on. Poirot deduces that Cassetti (who had escaped punishment through technicalities) is in fact Ratchett. By assembling the clues, interviewing the various passengers Poirot is able to come up with the terrifying conclusion of who killed Ratchett which leads to a moral dilemma for the famed detective.
Let’s talk about the stage set first. It is a marvel of engineering. The dining compartment and various sleeping births form a circle of carriages with train wheels on a track. As the need for a scene change happens, burly men dressed as conductors lean into the supports and move the train solely on muscle power. It is ingenious. The use of light, sound and fog further enhance the “feel” of the train. This is not to mention the premier French restaurant that suddenly rises out of the orchestra pit as some characters are introduced. As for the cast, there is no doubt that they have worked very hard to embrace and inhabit the various characters. The accents are perfect, they are dressed to the nines and the accommodations are sumptuous.
David Anthony Smith is the perfect Poirot with his Belgian accent and a most handsome and lush moustache. Jeffrey C. Hawkins as the highly excitable Monsieur Bouc brings an exhausting amount of energy to the stage. Jillian Kates as Helen Hubbard is the perfect bombastic American tourist. Laura Welsh Berg does a fine turn as the governess, Mary Debenham who is traveling with her lover Colonel Arbuthnot played Scotishly well by Nick Steen. Then there is the man you love to hate, Anthony Michael Martinez as Samuel Ratchett who is brought to justice early on in the show. James Alexander Rankin plays the often put upon Hector MacQueen who is Ratchett’s servant and translator. Eva Wielgat Barnes is perfect as the disposed Russian Princess Dragomiroff with Jodi Dominick well cast as Greta Ohlsson as her traveling companion. Angela Utera is fascinating as the mysterious Countess Andrenyi who has an interesting backstory. Lastly, there is Jerrell Williams as Michael the Conductor who rounds out the cast in splendid fashion.
The show is wonderfully directed by Charles Fee who keeps the “Ludwig Pace” roaring along. Esther M. Haberten dresses the characters to the T’s with top of the line clothing from that era. Patrick John Kiernan does a great job with the sound editing insuring that everyone is heard loud and clear and the important sound effects are on cue. Rick Martin is stupendous in the role of scenic and lighting designer setting the all important mood, especially during the final reveal. Special shout out to Matt Koenig as the dialect coach and his work with a wide variety of accents. And lastly kudos to Nick Steen as fight director for bringing a bit of realism.
Even those who are familiar with the movie version (and thus the “surprise ending”) will still fall in love with the characters and the way the plot and characters are developed. It is an evening of superb theater that is guaranteed to sell out with each performance. Get your tickets NOW! It’s everything that is great about theater.
The Great Lakes Theater production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” will be on stage in the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street, Cleveland, Ohio at Playhouse Square through March 3, 2024. For more information and tickets go to https://www.greatlakestheater.org/ or call (216) 241-6000.