– By Cate Marquis –
The ever-popular Agatha Christie mystery classic “Murder on the Orient Express” brings mystery and glamour to the Repertory Theater of St. Louis’ Mainstage for their penultimate show of the 2022-2023 season.
Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Armando Duran) is supposed to be on vacation but then the famous detective is prevailed on to head back to London from Istanbul to take an urgent case. Naturally he will travel on the luxurious, legendary Orient Express to get there. Along the way, he encounters an array of curious, varied passengers and a massive snow storm. And then someone turns up dead. What’s a detective to do?
The original play has quite a cast of characters but the Rep production pares them down a bit to make things on stage a bit more manageable. Cameron Jamarr Davis brings charm and period style to the role of Poirot’s friend and the director of the rail line, Hector MacQueen, who aids Poirot in evading some guests and in solving the case. Chief among the obnoxious guests Poirot might want to avoid is wealthy, loud, and much-married Mrs Hubbard, played with slapstick comic flair by Ellen Harvey, in one of the standout performances alongside Davis. Joel Moses plays menacing underworld figure Samuel Ratchet with a proper air of looming violence. The cast is rounded out with Gayton Scott in a charming version of aging Russian Princess Dragomiroff and Fatima Wardak, who does well as her fearful, religious maid Greta Ohlsson. Christopher Hickey and Margaret Ivey play secret lovers Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debebham touchingly. Janie Brookshire does as a fine job with breezy appeal as resourceful Countess Andrenyi. Michael Thanh Tran plays dual roles as Michel the Conductor and the Head Waiter very well.
And Poirot? There are plenty of actors have played the famous mustachioed private eye, including Kenneth Branagh and, most memorably, David Suchet in the PBS series. Armando Duran’s Poirot is a bit different, less fussy about his appearance and less prone to offense about his skill or being Belgian but more concerned with doing the morally right thing. His take leans more philosophical, more questioning which adds a note of freshness to the familiar character. On the other hand, those with a sharp ear may note his accent sounds neither Belgian nor French, a puzzling oversight as one would have expected more attention to this distracting detail.
Still the cast is very good overall, with an especially entertaining performance by Ellen Harvey as the loopy Helen Hubbard. But the real scene-stealer is the show’s impressive rotating set.
That huge, fancy set dominates the stage, and sometimes our thoughts as it spins around to reveal the next scene. That impressive set is one reason a pared-down cast is important. This marvelous construction turns to reveal scenes outside the train, inside the compartments or in the dining car, and shows the corridor between compartments as it changes sides and scenes. Every time it rotates, we see a cast member or two in the corridor and then the next scene’s setting, inside a dining car or a row of compartments, or something else. The huge set even turns with actors still in place, meaning good balance and focus is needed by the cast to be in this show. The set is beautiful, creating a wonderful sense of the period and the luxurious travel on this train for the ultra-rich, and it even seems like a character in the play. The big rotating set is so impressive it even steals the show at times, quite an artistic achievement for set designer Tim Mackabee.
Director Hana S. Sharif, the Rep’s artistic director, keeps things hoping in this production, especially once they are all aboard the train. The actors move swiftly from scene to scene, and need to step lively with that rotating set. The production is fun and entertaining, which is the best way to do it, with emphasis on the characters and performances, since many in the audience already know who done it.
The show delivers all the entertainment you hope, and with the added thrill of that impressive moving set, makes this “Orient Express” one you want to catch.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is on stage at Webster University’s Loretto Hilton Theater through April 9.
© Cate Marquis