Pack your bags and climb aboard. The Ogunquit Playhouse is staging Ken Ludwig’s all-new rendition of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” The classic tale of murder and intrigue is a wild ride and the theater’s first non-musical production in over 12 years.
The play, directed by British director Shaun Kerrison, had a dramatic start on opening night with an eerie voice-over about the kidnapping and murder of a little girl filling the blackened stage. Projected headlines flashed across the darkness. Suddenly a gap in the black opened to unleash a blinding light from the headlamp of a train, revealing the dramatically silhouetted form of the story’s magnificently mustached detective, Hercule Poirot.
WHAT: “Murder on the Orient Express”
WHERE: Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit
DATE REVIEWED: Aug. 16; runs through Aug. 31
CONTACT: 646-5511; www.ogunquitplayhouse.org
The character, played by Steven Rattazzi, had a twinkle in his eye as he walked to the front of the stage and began recounting his tale with a subtly droll delivery that paid homage to his famous character’s quirks. A mere cocking of an eyebrow or a well-timed sidelong glance was all it took to send laughter through the audience.
Poirot’s tale began in an elegant restaurant in Istanbul, lushly envisioned by Tony Award-winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. As stunning as the opening set was, it paled in comparison to what came next. The curtain rolled back to reveal a recreation of the Orient Express that elicited a collective “ooh” from the awestruck audience. And the exclamations of delight continued when the curtains rolled back again to reveal the exquisite interior.
A set malfunction in the curtain’s traveler track regrettably derailed the opening night performance for over a half hour during the first act as the hardworking behind-the- scenes crew replaced the track and unjammed the curtain. The delay initially disrupted the mood, but once the train —and cast — got rolling again, it was full speed ahead.
Ogunquit has cast an impressive who’s who of Broadway and regional performers to portray Christie’s infamous set of suspects. Andrew Dits is Col. Arbuthnot and Samuel Ratchett; Patricia Noonan is Mary Debenham, Ruth Gottschall is Helen Hubbard; Stephen James Anthony is Hector MacQueen; Christopher Gurr is Monsieur Bouc; Olev Aleksander is Michael, the conductor; Anita Gillette is Princess Dragomiroff; Anna Tempte is Greta Ohlsson; and Kate Loprest is Countess Andrenyi.
“Murder on the Orient Express” isn’t a musical, but this multi-talented cast could have executed one with ease. Collectively they’ve done it all, from musicals to films, with some of the biggest names in the business. Rattazzi has shared the stage with Liev Schreiber, F. Murray Abraham and Mandy Patinkin and Dits graced the stage with Al Pacino.
Many will recognize Gillette as Mona in the movie “Moonstruck” or Tina Fey’s mother on NBC’s “30 Rock.” That’s just the tip of an extensive resume that includes a performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and over 50 episodes of the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Her deadpan delivery is spot on as the regal Russian princess, offset perfectly by Gottschall as the outrageous Midwesterner, forever in search of her next husband.
The cast is funny, intriguing and unpredictable, all rolled into one very entertaining package. Their banter is smart and their lines pithy. Six-time Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long adds the finishing touch to their captivating personas with lavish period costumes that are breathtaking.
It’s been 85 years since Christie penned “Murder on the Orient Express” and it remains her most popular and thrilling murder mystery. Ogunquit continues the tradition with a rendition that delights and surprises. It’s as if the colorful characters climbed out of the pages of Christie’s detective novel and onto the Ogunquit Playhouse’s stage.
April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:
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