Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Murder on the Orient Express
Grand Canyon University
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Steal Away

David Loewen, Jasmine Coxey, and Cooper Townley
Photo by Ralph Freso
Playwright Ken Ludwig is probably best known for his Tony-winning farce Lend Me a Tenor and his Tony-winning book for Crazy for You. Since he is known mostly for comedies, it was interesting to hear that the estate of Agatha Christie approached him to write the stage adaptation of Christie's 1934 novel, "Murder on the Orient Express." It turns out the decision to hire Ludwig was wise as the end result, which premiered in 2017, is one that Christie fans and lovers of stage thrillers will most likely find thrilling, humorous, and entirely enjoyable.

Grand Canyon University's production is marvelous. The cast of young adults deliver rich performances, including excellent accent work, portraying this international cast of potential suspects, accompanied by sharp direction and gorgeous creative aspects.

Murder on the Orient Express has a fairly simple plot. It's 1934 and the world's greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, is on vacation and finds himself snowed in on a transcontinental train where a murder takes place. Poirot has a dilemma when he discovers that almost everyone on the train is a suspect and they also all have alibis for where they were when the murder happened.

The fun in any thriller is trying to figure out who the murderer is, and Ludwig ensures his adaptation doesn't get in the way of the taut mystery that Christie crafted by adding any unnecessary business. Ludwig does provide a few fun moments of humor in the thrilling chills of Christie's caper, and he also manages to tighten up the pace and heighten the tension by slightly reducing the number of possible suspects in this crafty whodunit set on a train. That keeps the show brisk and eliminates the potential confusion of having a dozen suspects, as there were in Christie's novel and both popular film adaptations.

Director Michael Kary's pacing is brisk, with a wonderful range of clear and precise accents from his cast and a great musical underscore that keeps the tension high during the scene changes. He also wisely keeps his cast in check so they never let the few comical moments overpower the serious nature of the thriller. The entire cast is spectacular. Christie has written very distinct characters and the GCU cast do a beautiful job creating individuals who are unique.

As Hercule Poirot, Cooper Townley is excellent. He has a distinguished Belgian accent and a refined stage presence with wonderful facial expressions and vocal inflections that clearly depict this sharp and intelligent detective; we can almost hear the gears in his head turning while he inspects the evidence and questions the suspects, hypothesizing who the killer is. David Loewen is great as Poirot's friend, the endearing Constantine Bouc, who serves the equivalent of the Watson to Poirot's Holmes, and is in charge of the Orient Express. He oozes charm but is also entirely flustered when there is a murder on his train. Townley has great reactions to the serious moments in the plot and he and Loewen play off each other well and project a realistic friendship.

As the meddling, obnoxious, and self-centered American Helen Hubbard, Kaylee Wilson-Woolridge is an absolute hoot and an audience favorite. Her comic timing is sharp and her delivery and portrayal excellent. Jasmine Coxey is wonderful as Countess Andrenyi, a smart married woman who is also a doctor and seems to catch Poirot's fancy. Anna Koth projects a regal sense of power as the Russian aristocrat Princess Dragomiroff, and Autumn Ford is appropriately mousy as her shy companion Greta Ohlsson. Ben Sparling and Kaylie Kraft form a realistic romantic duo as the stubborn Colonel Arbuthnot and the charming Mary Debenham, respectively. Miles Harris is warm and bright as Michel, the train's conductor. Peyton Davis has fun playing the sinister and sleazy businessman Samuel Ratchett, who finds himself murdered. Anthony Piunno is appropriately nervous as Ratchett's secretary Hector Macqueen.

William Symington's set design is outstanding, with several large movable set pieces depicting the exterior and interior of the train cars and the various compartments on board. Colin Hunt's props work well to depict the various pieces of evidence that are found. Cindi Calhoun's costuming, Kylie Boggus's hair design, and Bailey Hartman's makeup design are period perfect and also age the college-aged cast appropriately for the much older characters many play. The sound by Eric Johnson uses rich effects and an appropriate musical underscore to play up the chilling details in the plot.

Agatha Christie is known for novels and plays that have ingenious plot twists and memorable characters. Ludwig's adaptation keeps all of those elements in check while also adding a few humorous bits. With crisp and vivid portrayals, GCU's cast is fantastic, and their production of Murder on the Orient Express is a winner.

Murder on the Orient Express runs through October 1, 2023, at Grand Canyon University, Ethington Theatre, 3300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-639-8880.

Director: Michael Kary
Scenic Designer: William Symington
Costume Designer: Cindi Calhoun
Hair Designer: Kylie Boggus
Makeup Designer: Bailey Hartman
Sound Designer: Eric Johnson
Props Designer: Colin Hunt
Technical Director: Klay Wandelear

The Cast:
Hercule Poirot: Cooper Townley
Constantine Bouc: David Loewen
Hector Macqueen: Anthony Piunno
Michel the Conductor: Miles Harris
Colonel Arbuthnot: Ben Sparling
Samuel Ratchett: Peyton Davis
Little Girl: Rebecca Bain
Mary Debenham: Kaylie Kraft
Princess Dragomiroff: Anna Koth
Greta Ohlsson: Autumn Ford
Countess Andrenyi: Jasmine Coxey
Helen Hubbard: Kaylee Wilson-Woolridge
Radio Voice, Announcer, Head Waiter: Alex Pearson / Alex Pearson
Porters: Sean P. Huitt, Rebecca Bain, Alex Pearson