Review: New Stage Adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” Stops at La Mirada

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Michael L. Quintos

  • Associate Los Angeles Critic

Perhaps one of the most well-known detective mysteries ever published, Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” essentially became the subconscious blueprint for similar whodunnit stories that came after, particularly those that involve a confined room full of plausible suspects that are all under investigation by a brilliant sleuth.

That brilliant sleuth in Christie’s novel is, of course, her most ubiquitous recurring creation, the mustachioed Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot, the world-famous crime investigator with a knack for solving crimes with great precision, instinctual smarts, and meticulous accuracy. The character eventually became the central figure in 33 novels and more than 50 short stories penned by Christie.

Along the way Poirot graduated to both the big and small screen for multiple adaptations. Specifically, “Murder on the Orient Express” was adapted for television several times and for film twice: both in an all-star 1974 hit directed by Sidney Lumet and, most recently, a glossy but poorly-reviewed all-star effort in 2017 directed by Kenneth Branagh.

For its first-ever stage adaptation, the Christie estate commissioned award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me A Tenor” and “Crazy for You”) to adapt the book into a play. The resulting production first debuted at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theater Center in 2017 followed by a production at the Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT.

Now, the play is in the midst of its West Coast Premiere production produced by McCoy Rigby Entertainment that continues its run at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through November 11, 2018.

Directed by Sheldon Epps, this opulent-looking, comfortably-paced production certainly captures the essence of Christie’s famous novel, compacting it enough for the stage in an acceptably truncated way that hits most of the story’s expected peak points. All told, the changes Ludwig enacted in this admirable, if slightly straightforward iteration should still satisfy those very familiar with the novel and will also, in turn, entertain the others with an easily-deducible mystery that presents enough intrigue and curiosity to keep one invested.

While some of the necessary compression of the original story has caused some plot and logic head-scratchers (i.e. why ask a possible suspect for their expertise on crucial details of an active investigation?), for the most part, the edits aren’t deal-breakers. More comical interactions are now thrown into the mix with… well, mixed results (though I do love the shade-throwing between two of the older ladies that seem like discarded one-liners from old Golden Girls or Downton Abbey episodes).

Perhaps to keep things at a manageable formation, the play’s character count has been reduced, thereby also reducing the subsequent investigation’s suspect count. And the action on the train is pretty much focused (in view) to a pair of train cars—a spectacular moving set designed by Stephen Gifford—that slides back and forth on the stage depending on what requires the audience’s attention. As clichéd as it sounds, the train is, yes, a character in the play itself… and I would even argue that besides the play’s famous lead character, the train—with its posh parlor/bar car on one side and the classy “sleeper rooms” in the other—is the biggest, most scene-stealing star on that stage!

The one jarring change, though, comes right at the start of the play (SPOILER ALERT): a mysterious, unexplained bit of exposition (at least at first) that places a little girl (Hope Noel Bradley) in a night gown standing in the darkness cowering in fear then letting out a blood-curdling scream—that becomes a major motivational plot point for the rest of the play. It’s quite a jolt of a start, which, if nothing else, tells you this is a wholly new way to experience this well-known story.

But at its true core, the story pretty much sticks with the basics of its source material, which finds Poirot—excellently portrayed by Tony Amendola with enjoyable affected grandeur—being at the right place at the right time, wherein his particular talent becomes a much needed presence when a situation suddenly presents itself.

 It is 1934, and while on holiday in Istanbul, the detective receives a telegram pleading for his quick return to London to work on a new case. By happenstance, he manages to snag a last minute ticket to board the ultra luxe, otherwise fully-booked railway,The Orient Express, thanks to his old buddy, Monsieur Bouc (Time Winters) who works with the train.

Once aboard, he meets a parade of interesting and somewhat wide-ranging collection of passengers including Samuel Ratchett (Matthew Floyd Miller) an off-putting American businessman; Princess Dragonmiroff (Anne Gee Byrd), a Russian Royal; medically-trained Countess Andrenyi (Zarah Mahler); Mrs. Helen Hubbard (Christine Dunford), a melodramatic actress; and Mary Debenham (Rachel Seiferth) a mystery woman who is apparently a nanny by trade.

Sometime during the journey, the train is forcibly stopped by a snow drift, trapping itself on the side of a mountain. During the chaos of the accident, a gruesome discovery is uncovered: someone has been murdered! Logic and circumstances dictate for Poirot that the murderer must be on board the train, prompting him to interrogate each passenger with the help of Mr. Bouc, who desperately wants Poirot to solve the scandal immediately at least for the sake of his train business.

For those unfamiliar with the mystery plot line, I will dare not spoil any more of the story further except to say that this new, compacted version of “Murder on the Orient Express” certainly makes the mystery easier to solve.

Lively and visually sophisticated, La Mirada’s “Murder on the Orient Express” features great acting performances all around, particularly from Amendola, whose Poirot feels wonderfully authentic to Christie’s vision of the character: snarky, slightly eccentric, and perpetually curious. His interactions with the other company members make confrontations and conversations each a treat to watch.

Though the first act feels like it’s slightly trudging its way towards the bigger, showy-er points in the story, the second act picks up the urgency and becomes a collection of personality showdowns as one character after another succumbs to the truth Poirot is methodically trying to extract from each person. Though it may appear as if the stakes of the central murder mystery doesn’t seem as striking as it normally would feel, there’s enough charm and intrigue here to keep audiences from tuning out.

And, yes… it bears repeating… that Train! Gifford’s set is an astonishing and very imposing stunner, aided tremendously by Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting design and Josh Bessom’s sound design. Elsewhere in its theatrics, Shon LeBlanc’s period costumes match the train’s sophistication as does EB Bohks’ hair/wig and make up designs.

 Overall, La Mirada’s slick, lavish stage production of a literary classic is a visual wonder that will have you feeling slightly sophisticated for having chosen to see the show as your evening’s entertainment.

 

McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts presents

The West Coast Premiere of “Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”

Adapted by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Sheldon Epps.

“Murder on the Orient Express” stars Tony Amendola as “Hercule Poirot.” Also starring Julia Aks, Hope Noel Bradley, Will Block, Anne Gee Byrd, Brad Culver, Christine Dunford, Zarah Mahler, Matthew Floyd Miller, Rachel Seiferth, and Time Winters.

“Murder on the Orient Express” features scenic design by Stephen Gifford, costume design by Shon LeBlanc, lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg, sound design by Josh Bessom, and hair/wig/makeup by EB Bohks.

 Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of “Murder on the Orient Express” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, November 11, 2018. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

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