Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set entirely in the salon of a riverboat as it embarks and tours the Nile River in the 1940s, Christie's drama brings together several distinct individuals. There is Canon Pennefather and his niece Kay, her new husband Simon, and Jacqueline, the woman who Simon used to be engaged to, along with a headstrong man, a bossy woman and her niece, and a doctor. We learn that many of the passengers have past connections or grievances with some of their fellow travelers, so, when one of them is found shot in the head, there are several suspicious passengers who all have a motive for murder. On a boat that isn't that large, so they can't truly get away from each other, including whoever the murderer is, the race is on to figure out whodunnit.
Perhaps Christie had grown tired of writing about her crime-solving sleuth Hercule Poirot, who was featured in the 1937 novel this play is based on, as she dropped his character from the 1944 stage play and made several other changes to the characters. Christie assigned the crime-solving role in the theatrical adaptation to the canon, adding an interesting twist since it's highly possible he is the killer as he has a motive for murder. The play is packed full of the richly eccentric, odd, and high-strung characters Christie is famous for creating. It is somewhat talky and takes a while to introduce all of the characters, their connections to each other, and their motives for murder, but under Mark-Alan C. Clemente's clear and astute direction, and with a cast who are all skilled in creating unique individuals, it still makes for a fun and thrilling crime-solving drama.
Jack Pauly is excellent as Canon Pennefather. He does a beautiful job in making one of the play's main characters wordly and likable but also imposing, mysterious, and someone who, based on specific actions we see him make toward the person who is killed, is also a top candidate for the murderer. Eliana Burns and James Olsen create sophisticated and stylish charters as the young newlyweds Kay and Simon, and Melissa Vo seethes with jealousy and rage as Jacqueline, Simon's jilted fiancée and Kay's former best friend. Vo does a superb job with this portrayal and is also quite realistic and not over the top when Jaqueline gets drunk.
Anne Sanford is spot on as the rude, domineering and demanding Ms. Helen ffoliot-ffoulkes (leave it to Christie to come up with that brilliant last name), who brings her niece along on the journey (Alexandra Palmatier in an assured portrayal) but treats her like her personal servant. Wade Moran and Paul Anthony Hartwell do good work as the foreign doctor and bachelor, and Alexandra Johnson is appropriately flirty, and somewhat devious, as Kay's maid Louise. Achyut Dave, Maria Bains, and Angel Berumen round out the cast and are all good in several small roles, including the boat's staff and the local sellers the passengers encounter when boarding the boat.
Ellie Steward has done a good job with the stylish ship's salon set, and Mickey Courtney's costumes are rich, excellent and stylish, period perfect designs. Stacey Walston's lighting works well for both the bright daylight scenes and those set at night, which are filled with shadows and shafts of darkness. The sound design by Emilia Lungu uses various songs and sound effects to depict the Egyptian location and the period of the show.
Teeming with jealousy, suspicion and murder, and a few fun and surprising plot twists, Murder on the Nile is a well-crafted crime drama, and Desert Stages' production has a wonderful cast, clear direction, and beautiful creative aspects that make the play an engaging experience. An added joy, if you've read the book or seen the film or TV adaptation of the novel, is that the play has many changes from those other versions of Christie's book.
Murder on the Nile runs through February 23, 2020, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit desertstages.org or call 480-483-1664.
Director: Mark-Alan C. Clemente
Cast: (in order of appearance)