Hilarity, Hijinx, and Suspense in Milwaukee Rep’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express

If theater is meant to inspire, Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, adapted by Ken Ludwig, did exactly that. At intermission, my son and date for the evening turned to me and said “are there still trains like that today? Where you can travel such a long distance you have to sleep on them?!” And so we spent the intermission looking at the images of the California Zephyr and planning a trip to travel by train to visit family in California. So, yes, he was not inspired to be an actor or a detective or a writer, but the amazing set by Luciana Stecconi had inspired hope for a cross-country train ride!

Steccooni’s set was magnificent. On a relatively small stage, an entire train appeared in front of us. Using elaborate rotating pieces, we got to see the lounge, the sleeping area, the outdoor ends, and places in between while always feeling like we were in the confines of a luxurious train of the 1930s. We continued to marvel and rave about the set long after the show was over.

It seems odd to start a review talking about the set, especially when all other aspects of the show were equally impressive. Agatha Christie is one of those authors that everyone knows. I know I’ve encountered a book and maybe a movie, or a spoof of her works at various points in my life. I was definitely familiar with the famed character of Hercule Poirot and I had a vague idea of what Murder on the Orient Express was about, though it shouldn’t be hard to deduce based on the title. In this particular story, Poirot, played by the perfectly mustached Steven Rattazzi, finds himself on the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to Paris. He has just finished a case and is excited to use this trip as a vacation, alongside his good friend Monsieur Bouc, played by Gregory Linington, the director of the train line. Poirot and Bouc travel with a cast of fantastically accented characters who all appear suspicious from the onset. When one of the passengers is found stabbed, Poirot must abandon hopes of a carefree trip and take on detective duties again to uncover the killer, presumed to still be on board the stranded train. Of course, as he always does, Poirot has solved the crime by the end of the show, but you will have to see the performance to find out who the killer is!

There have been many versions of Murder on the Orient Express produced for the screen, but this is the first stage adaptation. It was written by theater comic legend, Ken Ludwig, after he was approached by the Christie estate to create a stage version. Ludwig is known for his comedy and slapstick humor, including such classics as Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You. What he created in this script is the perfect combination of whodunnit mystery and classic slapstick comedy. The audience is at once laughing while feeling the suspense. The action moves quickly as Poirot and the audience try to figure out what happened. 

Creation of strong characters and comedic timing is everything in this show, and Milwaukee Rep’s cast, under the direction of Annika Boras, was fantastic. Rattazzi was convincing as Poirot and when asked at the talk back about bringing such a famed character on stage, he talked about the balance of research through the reading of the original story and bringing his own interpretation to the character. This approach paid off and he was completely believable as the brilliant and famed detective. The crazy train passengers were also all great, especially as each one had a distinct and exaggerated accent that made the characters even more definable and funny. This show is truly an ensemble piece and would not have worked if there were weak links, and therefore there were none, However, if I were to call out standouts beyond Rattazzi, I would spotlight Gail Rastorfer as Helen Hubbard and Diana Coates as Countess Andrenyi. I found Rastorfer’s Helen to be larger than life and laughed every time she was onstage. Coates’ Countess, brought in as Poirot’s assistant in the case, provided enough mystery to me to help with the suspense of the show.

We were thrilled to end our trip to the Quadracci Powerhouse in Milwaukee with an actor talkback. Despite the high-energy show the actors had just finished, they were enthusiastic to talk to the audience who had remained. Their love of Christie and Ludwig, respect for director Borras, and joy at being together as an ensemble was obvious in their discussion. This love, joy, and respect are emitted throughout the performance of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express by the Milwaukee RepTheater and maybe after seeing it, you too will be inspired to take a cross-country train ride, read a Christie book, or just enjoy an evening of suspense and laughter.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express runs at the Quadracci Powerhouse through July 1st. It is worth a trip north! Get tickets here.

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