Murder on the Orient Express – Review by Tom Holehan

All Aboard! “Orient Express” on Track in Hartford

The suspects are dressed to the nines and sporting a variety of accents as the board the famed Orient Express where murder most foul is about to occur. It’s a stage adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s best mysteries, “Murder on the Orient Express”, and it’s currently being presented in a lavish production at Hartford Stage. Safe to say the theatre looks like it has a solid hit on their hands.

Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig and smoothly directed in cinematic style by Emily Mann, this new “Orient Express” made its world premiere last March at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. That production has transferred to Hartford with some new actors including David Pittu leading the company as a terrific Hercule Poirot. Poirot, of course, is the world famous Belgian (not French!) detective who finds himself on a train suddenly stranded in a snowstorm when a gruesome murder occurs. There are plenty of suspects to interview and the victim is not exactly an innocent bystander. There will be no spoilers here, but even for those familiar with Christie’s classic 1934 novel or 1974’s fine film version (the less said about Kenneth Branagh’s recent remake, the better), this is still a train ride very much worth the trip.

Some may take issue, however, with Ludwig’s trimming of characters and his addition of humor to Christie’s grim mystery which includes child abduction and murder. For the most part, though, Ludwig has done a good job of making what could be a staid and talky affair into a brisk and vastly entertaining evening. He’s also given the divine Julie Halston, playing a vulgar American actress, some of the play’s choicest dialogue. Halston is a hoot whether singing a handful of show tunes or trying to seduce the train’s handsome porter. She: “You remind me of one of my husbands.” He: “Which one?” She: “The next one.”

The sterling company of actors includes Veanne Cox, playing an elderly Russian princess dripping with dry sarcasm and Samantha Steinmetz as her shy travelling companion. A pair of illicit lovers, played with relish by Ian Bedford and Susannah Hoffman, keeps you guessing and Evan Zes is a droll delight as a railroad official anxious about the scandal a murder could cause. Leigh Ann Larkin plays a fetching Countess who, though a possible suspect, still catches the romantic eye of Poirot. And speaking of the dapper detective, Pittu delivers on every level as Christie’s iconic mastermind. A gifted Broadway character actor, Pittu never disappoints here in a role he seems to have been born to play.

Unlike 2015’s “Rear Window”, Hartford Stage’s previous film-to-stage-adaptation, the design of “Murder on the Orient Express”, while both lush and stylish, never overwhelms the story at its core. Scenic Designer Beowulf Boritt has created an Orient Express which may well rival the actual train and it is given shimmering luster under Ken Billington’s lighting. William Ivey Long’s gorgeous period costuming gets every detail right and is especially complimentary to the female characters. All told, this is a polished, crowd-pleasing theatre experience with clearly no expense spared.

“Murder on the Orient Express” has already been extended at Hartford Stage through Sunday, March 25, 2018. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartforstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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