REVIEW: Meadow Brook Theatre Takes Audiences for a Thrilling Ride on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Last year, Meadow Brook Theatre (MBT) opened its season with murder and mayhem with the classic, Arsenic and Old Lace. As they begin their 54th season, they revisit that theme with Agatha Christie’s famed Murder on the Orient Express; playing now through October 27, 2019 on the campus of Oakland University (OU).

Illustration by Chet Johnson

Originally published in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express continues to delight audiences in all its formats. Which says a lot about the longevity of Christie’s works considering there is familiarity with the plot, its colorful cast of characters (Costume Designer Corey Collins deserve credit for the outfits being on point with the personalities), and of course the eccentricities of the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. But this Michigan premiere adaptation by Ken Ludwig offers something I had not encountered before – humor.

Actually, the humor started before the show when Artistic Director Travis Walter stepped out dressed like a railroad/crossing sign. It was quite the sight and Walter should be commended for being such a good sport. From there we were plunged into darkness with only the pierce of a child’s scream intermixed with a train whistle ringing in our ears. The first character to appear onstage is Hercule Poirot played by Ron Williams (The IT Girl). Poirot is such a beloved and well-known character (second only to Sherlock Holmes) that I applaud Williams for not trying to imitate any of the other actors (specifically David Suchet) who have previously inhabited the role. Instead, he focuses on the essence of who Poirot is and stays true to that spirit from beginning to end. Then, one-by-one we are introduced to the train’s occupants and eventual suspects.

Chip DuFord plays the waiter in the hotel café, but his main role is Michel, a Frenchman and the train’s conductor. There’s also Hannah Niece as Mary Debenham, an Englishwoman; Craig Bentley as Monsieur Bouc, an Orient Express bigwig and friend of Poirot; Sara Catheryn Wolf as the easily flustered Swede Greta Ohlsson; Cheryl Turski as Countess Andrenyi, a Hungarian noble; and Peter C. Prouty as Hector McQueen, the longsuffering assistant to Stephen Blackwell’s boisterous American Samuel Ratchett. Blackwell also has the opportunity to play the hotheaded Scotsman Colonel Arbuthnot. Both Arbuthnot and Ratchett exhibit a tempestuous nature, and it is a delight to watch Blackwell sink his teeth into both roles. I mentioned before there is humor in this adaptation and quite a bit of it comes courtesy of Lynnae Lehfeldt as the man-hungry American Helen Hubbard and Ruth Crawford as Russian Princess Dragomiroff. The witty barbs exchanged by their characters felt like I was watching Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek and the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey going at it. The breadth of combined stage experience Lehfeldt and Crawford bring to these roles is evident and they are absolutely amazing to watch. But perhaps the biggest star of the show is the one not listed in the playbill — The Orient Express herself.

Helen Hubbard (Lynnae Lehfeldt) and Hercule Poirot (Ron Williams) ponder, whodunit in the Christie classic ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ now playing at Meadow Brook Theatre until October 27.
Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography

In a televised or movie version of Murder on the Orient Express cutting to different scenes is done with ease in an editing room. In MBT’s version, the magic came down to the efforts of the Stage Manager Terry W. Carpenter, Scenic Designer Brian Kessler, Lighting Designer Reid G. Johnson, and Sound Designer Mike Duncan. Making all the moving parts come together in a seamless fashion was no small feat and they definitely exceeded expectations. Our first glimpse of The Orient Express is the exterior as all the passengers are boarding. The next time we see her, the interior of the dining car and sleeping compartments are in full view. When the train first shifted between the two ‘sets’ you could hear a gasp from the audience followed by applause. For the rest of the play, all the action takes place in either the dining car or sleeping compartments. I don’t know if these are the tightest quarters these actors have ever worked within, but there was certainly no room for error and the entire cast did a marvelous job making it work and most importantly, believable.

Since this is a Christie story, there is a murder followed by Poirot’s relentless and methodical pursuit to figure out who among the passengers is the killer. Normally, during Poirot’s summation of the case, there are flashbacks of the action for the audience to revisit. However, because this is a play and not a movie, a unique kind of flashback is employed; one that helps add a layer of visual interest in the place of a boring and straightforward summation. But unlike most of Poirot’s other cases, the unmasking of the murderer is not so black and white. There is an enormous amount of gray area that doesn’t sit well with Poirot. No matter who plays Poirot or the way he is played, one thing never changes: he is a man of principles. And for him what he’s uncovered puts him in a moral dilemma. Does he takes what he knows and do the right thing by alerting the authorities? Or does he for once allow chaos to enter the picture so that the greater good prevails? For the answer, you’ll need to reserve your seat for this thrilling show, playing now until Sunday, October 27 at Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of OU.

The performance runs two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Tickets range from $36 to $46 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online at www.Ticketmaster.com. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.

Murder on the Orient Express is made possible through the generous support of The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Kresge Foundation, The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.

Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. For additional information, please call 248-377-3300. Meadow Brook Theatre is a nonprofit, cultural institution serving southeast Michigan for more than 50 years.

About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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