Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Murder on the Orient Express
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's reviews of Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story and Intimate Apparel


David Pittu
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Ken Ludwig's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express at Hartford Stage is a visually resplendent production. Ludwig, a playwright who might be best known for his hilarious Lend Me a Tenor, injects this version of a classic with some fast-paced dialogue. Where, however, is the anticipated mystery? This show was crafted at the McCarter Theatre a year or so ago. It boasts eye-catching design by Beowulf Borritt and top-line costuming by William Ivey Long. Some of those who were cast in the New Jersey presentation continue in Hartford while other actors are new. The quality of performance, ably led by director Emily Mann, is uniformly of the highest caliber. In the end, it's fair to call this a pleasurable two hours of theater.

The audience immediately becomes aware, through a short sequence, that Daisy Armstrong, age five, has been murdered. This is chilling. After the stage goes dark, Detective Hercule Poirot (David Pittu) appears. Pitt was recently seen in The Front Page on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award in both Is He Dead? and LoveMusik. As the focal point of the current show, Pittu proceeds with a persuasive and detailed performance. This play version recalls Sydney Lumet's acclaimed 1974 movie and the film version (starring Kenneth Branagh) which opened this past November.

For the most part, the action, set in 1934, then transpires on a train ride from Istanbul to Paris. One of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett (Ian Bedford), is killed off. Poirot, aboard with a number of other passengers, is faced with the task of finding who killed Ratchett (a man who has another identity). The murderer could be a passenger or a train crew member.

The train itself is an event. It travels, car by car, across the stage. Poirot moves along, interviewing the many eccentric individuals on the trip. Among them is American Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), who has had multiple marriages and is far from shy with her commentary. A Broadway veteran who has been in such shows as You Can't Take It with You, On the Town and Hairspray, Halston enjoys her moments and, in one instance, cannot resist amplifying a sight gag. She's superb, as is Veanne Cox (Broadway credits in An American in Paris, and La Cage aux Folles) who plays the droll Princess Dragomiroff. Leigh Ann Larkin (A Little Night Music and Gypsy on Broadway) is fetching as Countess Andrenyi.

Perhaps you might wonder whether this genre, live stage, might be even more effective in lending high drama to Christie's novel than the subsequent films. Hartford Stage offers a rendering which is definitely cinematic. The train's ability to make its way is both imaginative and authentic. The actors-as-passengers are convincing. It seems as if they are literally confined and each has a ready alibi as to why he or she could not have possibly been the one to take Ratchett's life.

Thus, the McCarter Theatre's Murder on the Orient Express is stylistically stunning and, thanks to Ludwig, imbued with genuine laugh aloud instances. Pittu is skilled and solid in his role. It is fitting that he closes the couple of hours with a monologue. The production benefits from his masterful deliveries.

The creative team supplies production elements which are undeniably impressive. The issue, though, is that the "whodunnit" question, while important, is far from gripping. What one observes is, without doubt, enduring. The current Murder on the Orient Express is most distinctive, then, for its artistic look.

Murder on the Orient Express, through March 25, 2018, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St, Hartford CT. For tickets, call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.


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