While Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” set in 1934 is perhaps the most famous of the murder mystery genre, I managed to walk into the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s play entirely spoiler-free. As a result, “Murder” was a fresh and engaging production.
Christie’s simple concept of placing a group of intriguing characters in close quarters when a murder takes place is positively brilliant and has spawned a panoply of copycat productions as well as the wildly popular murder mystery dinner train phenomenon.
This relatively light-hearted version of “Murder” begins with a violent murder of a young child that was triggering and unexpected. The gruesomeness thankfully remains almost entirely in black and white projections; and the projections are a clever design element recurring throughout the production allowing the audience to feel the tension of cramped quarters while at the same time being transported through snowy landscape. Additionally, the set by Paul Tate dePoo III consisting primarily of revolving cars of the elegant train is fantastic and managed to garner even more applause from the opening night audience than the stellar actors.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and the MVP is surely Asolo Rep regular David Breitbarth (Bouc), who elevates every performance with his joyful and humane demeanor, a constant throughout the wide range of characters he has portrayed over the years. Bouc is the owner of the Orient Express and dear friend of Hercule Poirot, the renowned detective played by Asolo newcomer James DeVita, who turned in a captivating performance.
Poirot has plans to take a pleasure ride on the train when he runs into his friend Bouc in an Istanbul cafe. DeVita and Breitbarth developed a charming crime-fighting “bromance” teaming up to solve a murder, keep the passengers calm, and try to maintain the stellar reputation of the Orient Express.
The two are joined by a very small group of first class passengers with highly unusual backgrounds. Most noteworthy are four fabulous women, the beautiful and talented Countess, a physician, played by Diana Coates; a Russian Princess, uniformly assured and hilarious Asolo matriarch Peggy Roeder; a wealthy American Mrs. Hubbard (Tina Stafford), who simply cannot contain her desire to sing and dance with the natural rhythms of the train; and Mary Debenham, Helen Joo Lee, an overwrought mistress, who remains charming despite her anxiety about the events on the train.
This fast-moving production is both entertaining and thoughtful. Although it has elements of farce, including an unforgettable rendition by a pajama-clad Stafford of “Lullaby of Broadway,” the play also raises some interesting moral issues. Who should decide what happens to people who are capable of engaging in irreperable harm to others?
The lively and engaging “Murder” is well-staged, well-acted and an enjoyable way to spend a few hours at the theater.