An unsavory businessman is found murdered in his locked sleeper car on the Orient Express. Who killed him? Was it the obnoxious, man-hungry American? Perhaps it was the pious missionary? Could it be the Russian princess? Match wits with Hercule Poirot and see if you can figure out who done it when you watch Murder On the Orient Express at Theatre Lawrence.
One thing I’ve discovered as a regional writer is that a certain show or two get hot every single season and hit the schedules of many theatres. The last year or so, this show has been a sizzling property. So much so that this marks my fourth review of it. That being said, Theatre Lawrence’s version has been my personal favorite as all of the right elements came together to forge an incredibly intense and gripping night of theatre.
I was hooked on Jessica Franz-Martin’s direction from the very first voiceover. Franz-Martin sets the mood for this tragic mystery with an ethereal voiceover held over the projection of a gently falling snow and it’s off to the races from there. Not only does she lead her actors to pristine performances, but her staging is off the charts as she knows just how and when to bring in the technical elements to enhance the storytelling which will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final revelation.
As for the cast. . .well, there isn’t a weak link in the lot. Under Franz-Martin’s skillful guidance, they work like an Olympic caliber relay team as they effortlessly pass the verbal baton back and forth between each other. Don Hires is the model of efficiency as the conductor, Michel. Kelli Szrot will have you grinding your teeth as the irritating Helen Hubbard who never knows when to shut her yap. Richard J. Burt is ebullient and high-strung as Monsieur Bouc, the manager of the company that owns the Orient Express. Erica Baruth’s tongue cracks like a whip as the blunt and direct Princess Dragomiroff. Laura Burt strikes just the right note of piety as the missionary, Greta Ohlsson. Malachi Swedberg is loyal, if put upon, as Hector Macqueen, the secretary to the murder victim. Emma Webster’s physicality shows she’s hiding a secret as the former governess, Mary Debenham.
I was quite impressed by the versatility of Dan Heinz who plays the dual roles of Colonel Arbuthnot and Samuel Ratchett. As Ratchett (the murder victim), he comes off like a Neanderthal with his brutish temperament, his slumped shoulders, and mobster voice. As Arbuthnot, he is every bit the honorable soldier with his ramrod posture and his strong, but firm voice that rings with the right level of authority which would make you follow and respect him.
Abby Ilardi Lowry has a very compelling performance as Countess Andrenyi. Lowry brings a deep intelligence to the character who is more than capable of matching wits with the genius of Hercule Poirot. I especially liked her banter with Poirot which strongly hinted that in another time and place, there might have been something more between them. Lowry has a real gift for nimble wordplay with her dialogue during the corpse examination scene being a shining example.
In the midst of all the murder and mystery stands Hercule Poirot, incredibly essayed by Michael Juncker. Juncker beautifully underplays the role and just exudes a sense of mastery and control. His deductions are always spontaneous and extemporaneous, but what I truly enjoyed was the weightiness he brought to the role. Poirot begins this mystery with a burdened conscience as his most recent case had tragic results. This burden is always lurking in the background until his solution in this case forces him to face the reality that the law and justice may not always be one and the same. Juncker shines with Poirot’s final decision in this moment and its aftermath.
I was blown away by James Diemer’s set. It’s so functional as it changes from the walls and windows of a luxury hotel to the entrance to the Orient Express before splitting open to reveal a revolving set that smoothly rotates to show the conductor’s office, the sleeper car (wood outlines imply doors and walls), and the dining car (the snow frosted windows were a brilliant touch). Diemer’s lights enhance the mood with the blood red of the murder scene and the almost sepia toned spotlights on the suspects during the denouement being especially nice flourishes. Bob Newton’s sounds are a work of art that boost every moment whether it’s the jarring stop of the Express hitting a mountain of snow, to the old-time song playing from a radio, to my favorite moment, the metallic slashing of a knife in the murder scene. Jane Penington’s costumes are period accurate with Michel’s tunic, Dragomiroff’s regal garb, and Poirot’s sedate suit being particular standouts.
If you’re looking for a stellar night of mystery and intrigue, this is it. Taut with tension, rife with intrigue, and murderously mesmerizing. Murder On the Orient Express is a puzzling night of entertainment that will have you biting your nails and keep your attention from the first snowflake to the final somber note.
Murder On the Orient Express runs at Theatre Lawrence through March 12. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased by calling 785-843-SHOW, visiting the Box Office, or visiting wp.theatrelawrence.com. Theatre Lawrence is located at 4660 Bauer Farm Dr in Lawrence, KS.