Many fans of mystery writer Agatha Christie probably prefer adaptations of her books to be faithful and straightforward, but that doesn’t stop those framing her work for the stage or screen from taking very different approaches to her characters and stories. Sometimes, that means darker or more brooding interpretations of her whodunits, perhaps putting more weight than they’re worth on the originals. Other times, as is the case with Asolo Rep’s current production of Murder on the Orient Express, the direction takes a broadly comic—too broadly comic—turn.
That’s not surprising given that the adapter at work here is Ken Ludwig, best known for his farces Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo. Those plays can be lots of fun. But while Christie’s books, with their often stereotypical veddy British characters and suspicious, exaggerated foreigners, certainly admit of some comic moments, Ludwig’s take on this oft-filmed mystery is so over the top it comes at you—well, like the roaring train of the title.
You’re probably more than familiar with the setup: A cast of eccentrics assemble on the famed train at the same time that supersleuth Hercule Poirot (Asolo newcomer James DeVita in an assured performance) plans a short vacation from his crime-solving labors. But there’s no rest for Poirot as the violent demise of a vulgar, bullying American businessman (Matt DeCaro) takes place on board, and Poirot’s friend, Bouc (David Breitbarth), who’s in charge of the train company, begs him for help.
As usual with Christie, there’s no shortage of suspects (even though Ludwig has whittled the number down a bit, and no wonder; those train compartments get awfully crowded). There’s a hot-headed young Scotsman (Jonathan Grunert) and the woman he loves (Helen Joo Lee); a brassy Minnesotan with a fondness for drink (Tina Stafford, an audience favorite); the businessman’s seemingly insignificant secretary (Grant Chapman); a Russian princess (Peggy Roeder); a fervent missionary (Alex Pelletier, a third-year FSU/Asolo Conservatory student who turns in nice work); an exotic countess (Diana Coates); and even the train’s conductor, Michel (Gregg Weiner). And there’s plenty of motive, too; the businessman, Ratchett, manages to offend just about everybody in the few short minutes he has to live.
But too often the mystery part of the show gets swamped in the comedy, which can get pretty slapstick. That seems to be Ludwig’s intention, and it’s carried out by director Peter Amster.
It does, however, mean that the original motive behind the murder (which is related to a horrific family tragedy of a few years earlier) sits awkwardly at the back of things instead of at the forefront. When genuine human emotions do surface, they seem an afterthought.
On the plus side, Paul Tate DePoo III’s set design, which swings about smoothly to show us the train’s stylish Art Deco-y exterior and plush interiors, and Tracy Dorman’s costumes, carefully attuned to their wearers’ stations in life, are a pleasure to look at. And Greg Emetaz’s projection designs help establish, among other things, that snowstorm that strands the train in the wilderness.
But if we are really paying so much attention to how the production looks, it’s partly because in Ludwig’s hands the story itself is only intermittently entertaining and not nearly as compelling as it can be. There will be audience members who thoroughly enjoy the show’s comic emphasis, I know; for me, it made the evening a bumpy ride.
Murder on the Orient Express continues in rotating rep through March 8; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.