Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ at LTA!

Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ at LTA!
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ full cast seated L-R: Brianna Goode (Countess Andrenyi), Eleanore Tapscott (Helen Hubbard), Patricia Nicklin (Princess Dragomiroff), Julia Rudgers (Greta Ohlsson). Standing L-R: Brian Lyons-Burke (Monsieur Bouc), Paul Caffrey (Samuel Ratchett), John Paul Odle (Colonel Arbuthnot), Michael Kharfen (Hercule Poirot), Danielle Comer (Mary Debenham), Avery Lance (Hector MacQueen) and Paul Donahoe (Head Waiter/Michel). (Photo/Matt Liptak)

By Thompson Eskew

A whispery whodunit! The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s newest production invites intrigue and suspense as it follows the genius detective Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express.” Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery novel of the same name by Ken Ludwig in 2017, LTA invites audience members to stay on the edge of their seats for two hours and enjoy a welcomed dash of the comedic element to pair with the suspense.

Helmed by award-winning director Stefan Sittig, “Murder on the Orient Express” is brought to life through a healthy blend of special effects, a profound sense of fluidity with the set pieces, and the gripping stage presence of this talented cast.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the stage adaptation of Christie’s novel follows a famous Belgian detective traveling to London from Istanbul by train who finds himself solving an overnight murder with a cast of colorful suspects. Set in the year of the novel’s release, the suspense and sphere of isolation is emphasized by the reliance on dodgy radio technology and the locomotive’s adherence to the snowfall. Trapped on a train with suspects of various backgrounds, newcomers will be captivated by Poirot’s methods to his madness as he tries to solve the case.

Taking the center stage and rocking the detective’s elegant mustache is Michael Kharfen, returning to LTA after a 20-year hiatus. Sporting both the look and the charisma of Poirot, Kharfen’s depiction is further emboldened by his Belgian accent. Kharfen’s Poirot is the center of many lighthearted laughs throughout the production.

But Poirot’s methods would not be half as entertaining to watch if he did not have a confidant in Brian Lyons-Burke, who marvelously depicts a frustrated Monsieur Bouc, close friend to Poirot and overseer of the Orient Express. The small jabs and interactions Lyons-Burke has with both his friend and his customers bring Monsieur Bouc to life.

The wider cast of characters also shine in this production. Eleanore Tapscott brings the vibrant American Helen Hubbard to life through her sarcasm and whimsy, while Patricia Nicklin masterfully embodies the tired, no-nonsense spirit of Princess Dragomiroff. The pair Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot are another source of intrigue throughout the story, depicted by LTA alums Danielle Comer and John Paul Odle.

While a production about a murder could gravitate toward darker themes, the cast perfectly envelopes an entire range of emotions within the two-hour play. From small laughs between any two of the characters to the deep-set motivations of certain others, an audience member may not be sure of their feelings toward each character until after the curtains are drawn.

Perhaps the greatest surprise in LTA’s production was the use of a turntable to transition between the train’s luxury car and its cabins. Between scenes, spectators will see a dimly lit stage turn an entire 180 degrees in a matter of seconds, the efficiency of which is not to be taken lightly.

“The turntable was certainly our biggest challenge in the show; the set is its own character. Our set designer gave us a beautiful concept … figuring out how many actors it would take to turn it was our biggest obstacle,” Producer Kadira Coley said. “Figuring out how to make this show that requires two cars in such a constrained space that we have here at the Little Theatre of Alexandria was part of the demand for a turntable.”

Besides the physical wonder of the turntable for the set, the lighting and sound design further emphasize the sense of dread and awe as the mystery progresses. Each character has their moment under a singular spotlight, perfectly executed by both the crew and actors. Exhilarating sounds set off-stage such as the train’s whistle and gunshots are also utilized to make the set feel alive for both its characters and the audience experiencing them for the first time.

There are some key differences between Ken Ludwig’s adaptation and the 1934 novel, which fans of the original story will notice.

“There’s a combination of some of the characters into one character, and that in and of itself makes it different, and there are a couple of little surprises in there which are not in the book or any of the movies. People who know those intimately will be surprised by that,” Coley said.

An additional feature within the story is the incorporation of accents from the menagerie of characters. As the story follows a collective within 1930s Europe, the audience becomes familiar with accents from countries such as Belgium, Hungary, England, Scotland and even Russia. Dialect Coach Alden Michels is credited for his tutelage in dialect rehearsals in preparation for the show, the results of which have done wonders for the production.

From the hilarity of Poirot’s interactions with his fellow passengers and dramatic undertones of the mysterious murder to the elegance of set transitions with the turntable and sound design, LTA’s latest production promises to be a fun experience. Although focused around a gruesome act of malice, the balance of emotions invites audience members both young and old to come along for the ride.

The writer is a theatre aficionado and recent graduate of Christopher Newport University.