Encore Michigan

Meadow Brook’s ‘Orient Express’ is gorgeous and kills

Review October 07, 2019 Encore Staff

By Angela Colombo

Rochester Hills, Mich.–At night when he’s alone in the darkness, this is the thing that keeps him up. So said the mustachioed, gifted sleuth many of us know so well, in Ken Ludwig’s new comedy adaptation of  Murder on the Orient Express that kicked off the Meadow Brook Theater’s 2019/2020 season.

Hercule Poirot, the brilliant detective who has figured prominently in 33 of Agatha Christie’s novels, once again finds himself in the thick of things in what is probably one of the best known murder mysteries ever written. Agatha Christie’s 1934 whodunnit is creatively interpreted by Ludwig, who has had great success in New York productions “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo,” as well as the Gershwin-scored musical “Crazy for You.”

In the opening scene we sit in darkness as we hear a little girl giggling as she’s put to bed, then what sounds like a man entering her room, then a blood curdling scream. Lights come on and we are propelled into the story with its cast of odd fellows and thick accents. The detail of the kidnapped child re-emerges later in the play to round out the story.

Poirot, played vividly by Ron Williams, is treating himself to a mini holiday in Calais but is called back to London. He decides to travel via the luxe Orient Express, a most discerning and stylish mode of transport for its time. The echoing, metallic sounding train announcements and a stage that moves from side to side taking us from one train compartment to another make the set come to life and draw us into the ambiance of this posh ride. The set is replete with art deco touches taking us back to the 1930s.

The famous detective soon finds himself at the foot of the bed of a murdered, wealthy American, among a group of curious fellow travelers. The elegant train has been brought to a halt because of a snowstorm during the night. Stuck in a snow drift with no way off, the shrewd Poirot has ample time to get to know the passengers/suspects and figure out who the murderer is.

Poirot’s interrogation of the passengers is compelling. In frustration he likens the clues he’s gathered to looking at a Picasso painting of detached body parts–nothing goes together. And for the Belgian sleuth, “There are too many clues.”

Performances are fresh and spunky. Lynnae Lehfeldt plays the frisky loud American as if she is channeling Bette Midler in both song and spirit. The character of Helen Hubbard is big. Lehfeldt embodies it and lets us have it with snarky one liners, like when Hubbard talks about her husbands–past and present. Of the one who died young she scoffed in her midwestern accent, “he had no talent for longevity.” 

Stephen Blackwell as Colonel Arbuthnot was spot on, never missing a beat in his Scottish accent. We believe him when he challenges Poirot on what he knows about justice. Blackwell also plays Samuel Ratchett, the American tycoon found dead in his compartment. Blackwell’s performance makes our dislike of Ratchett acute and immediate, there is no doubt this is not a good guy.

The story throws us a provocative twist that requires us to ask, what’s more important? The law of the land or justice as perceived and meted out by some.  I left feeling conflicted but also maybe a little smug at how it all goes down. I’ll leave it at that. No spoiler here.

Murder on the Orient Express is a fun, fast moving production that keeps you thinking the whole time while entertaining. You start the mental retreat back in time before even getting to your seat. Upon entering the lobby of the Meadow Brook there are people in costume, from the ticket master in the box office to the ushers, who don conductor caps of days gone by. It is clear that everyone at the Meadow Brook is intent on giving audience members an immersive experience.

Murder on the Orient Express runs October 2 through 27 at the Meadow Brook Theater on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester.