Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Murder on the Orient Express
Also see Richard's recent review of Grand Horizons
The only mystery now is, how do you criticize a perfect show?
Michael Salvatore Commendatore is the designer of the lavish spectacle, and Tim Mackabee designed the dazzling train set, which turns the Browning Mainstage of the Loretto-Hilton Center into a great railroad roundhouse, once the train is revealed revolve-by-revolve (by revolve-by-revolve, and yes, my head is still spinning). Armando Durán is 100% made for the role, elegant and ferocious by turns, as the Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot.
The tale is set in the dismal off-season for tourists traveling between Istanbul and Paris. But, strangely, the whole first class section happens to be sold out in the middle of winter on a legendary vehicle suddenly crowded with an international cast of characters.
The stage version changes the pool of suspects from 12 to eight, plus a Mr. Samuel Ratchet (played with gangster-ish bravado by Joel Moses). The stage is a fraught Barbie's DreamHouse of murderous clues, interlocking alibis, and high-style distractions. Joshua David Robinson has his hands full as the off-stage dialect coach in a Baedeker's tour of European accents all-aboard.
The whole thing is (successfully) designed to trick us into a permanent state of revelation, to which we willingly succumb. The unveiling of the railcars' innards again and again, and the strange fallible staginess of the passengers all provide a steady stream of "aha!" moments. Over and over we lean forward, waiting for the next big reveal, in a two hour and fifteen minute magic act of great detective fiction. The year is 1934, right between the stock market crash and World War II. And in this case, anything can happen on a train.
Ellen Harvey is deliciously over the top as the outspoken dowager from the American Midwest, Helen Hubbard, and Janie Brookshire is the beautiful Countess Andrenyi, promoted in this version from drug addict to battlefield doctor and investigative sidekick. And Webster University ensemble member Aria Maholchic smoothly stepped in on opening night to substitute for Janie Brookshire in the role of Mary Debenham, the torn, illicit love of the married Scotsman, Colonel Arbuthnot (brave and commanding as played by Christopher Hickey). And what could be more difficult than stepping into an intensely puzzling and mechanized work like this one?
Jamil A.C. Mangan is gracious and comical as the business manager of the rail line. Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts wrote the little music flourishes, which veer dangerously between major and minor keys, and wrote the eerie sound design as well, which evokes the mad howl of winter. You'll be glad to step outside into spring again once it's all over.
There is very admirable work by Gayton Scott as the Princess Dragomiroff, and Fatima Wardak as her naive Swedish assistant. And I've gone this far, so I might as well mention all the suspects: Cameron Jamarr Davis is exactly right as Mr. Ratchet's jittery assistant Hector, and the always lovable Michael Thanh Tran is heartwarming as the faithful conductor Michel.
Clever projections and a creepy full-fledged film-short establish the "Lindbergh baby"-inspired backdrop for the hard-charging mystery to come. In the big final scene, everyone looks like they're holding the murder weapon behind their backs, ready to strike. In the midst of it all, Poirot will not be cowed or cajoled. He has never turned his back on the law before, he proclaims.
But still, his final speeches are marvels of a just man, stretched to his very limit.
Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express runs through April 9, 2023, at the Loretto-Hilton center, 130 N. Edgar Rd. (on the campus of Webster University), St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.repstl.org.
Cast of Film:
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association