Review: "Murder on the Orient Express" at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Theatre Critics
  • American Theater Critics Association

New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center has brought to Hartford Stage Ken Ludwig’s highly-anticipated stage adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, Murder on the Orient Express. Already, ticket sales have been extended an additional two weeks, and I’m here to say that it is indeed worth the hype.

Orient Express is a visually-stunning and comedically masterful show. With its lustrous stage detail, magnificent costumes, and impeccable comedic timing, it is Ludwig at his best (and a welcome relief to some other Ludwig productions I’ve seen this year!). And with stellar performances and Emily Mann’s excellent direction, it is a surefire crowd-pleaser of a play.

For those that don’t know, the Orient Express was a real rail line that Ms. Christie traveled on in 1928, serving as the inspiration for this novel. She found trains to be the perfect crucible for mystery and intrigue to great effect: Murder on the Orient Express is one of her best-known and most successful novels. Istanbul in the early 1930s: Christie’s famous Belgian inspector, Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), needs to travel back to London from Istanbul, and his friend, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes), is able to secure a sleeping compartment for his friend on the luxurious Orient Express, with the assistance of the train’s head conductor, Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Meanwhile, eight passengers board onto the same train bound for various destinations: Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox) and her companion, Swedish missionary, Greta Ohlsson (Samantha Steinmetz); Scot Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford) and his companion, British governess Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman); eccentric American Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston); bombastic American businessman Samuel Ratchett (also played by Ian Bedford) and his secretary, Hector MacQueen (Juha Sorola); and Bulgarian doctor-now-Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin). When one of the passengers is found murdered, it is discovered that he had an alternate identity: a child kidnapper and murderer named Bruno Cassetti (a most-certain nod to the 1932 kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son, whose kidnapper was named Bruno Hauptmann). As motives and alibis are revealed, it appears that any or all of the passengers aboard this train had reasons for wanting this man dead. So, who dunnit and how’d they do?

 Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Ludwig’s works require excellent pacing and Mann makes sure to direct her actors with that in mind: nobody loses a beat. All of the actors give memorable performances, but I especially enjoyed Mr. Zes as Monsieur Bouc. His comedic timing is flawless, and he is the perfect complement to Mr. Pittu’s drier-witted Poirot, who is also excellent. Ms. Cox too delivers the Russian princess’ lines with an acerbic wit.  Ms. Steinmetz is funny as the princess’ awkward companion, although her accent was a little inconsistent. Mr. Bedford was playing two (technically three?) roles so well that I didn’t realize it was the same actor. Ms. Hoffman is charming as Mary, the British nanny. Ms. Halston is brash and hysterical as the quirky Mrs. Hubbard. And I almost didn’t recognize Leigh Ann Larkin, who I saw as a fabulously saccharine and sardonic Dainty June in Gypsy with Patti Lupone, and I loved her here as the sultry and smart countess.

When the train is revealed, the audience burst into applause, and with good reason. Beowulf Boritt outdoes himself in creating Christie’s luxurious liner down to the art deco details in each railcar. The train moves across the stage, switching between two railcars. The trees and snow in the background subtly provided the ambiance of a wintery journey through the mountains and were the perfect complement to the gorgeous train.  The “curtain” is a series of panels that open and close in various directions, making the set as small or as large as it needs to be. Costumes by William Ivey Long embody the Golden Age of Glamour with elegant lines, fitted silhouettes, and Gatsby-esque sophisticated style. Countess Andrenyi’s opening costume is especially splendid with its white fur and feathers.   Ken Billington’s lighting illuminated the colorful set and costumes brilliantly while focusing and augmenting the dramatic mood flawlessly. 

Frankly, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this; It’s funny and schmaltzy in the best ways possible.  If campiness isn’t your thing, this might not be your cup of tea, but I found it with its running time of just two hours the perfect cure for the winter blues.