Larry Yando as Hercule Poirot? Yes, please! It must have been a stroke of genius worthy of the detective himself that led Drury Lane Theatre, through casting director Matthew D. Carney and director Jessica Fisch, to pair one of Chicago’s most beloved and venerable actors with Agatha Christie’s iconic Belgian—don’t call him French—detective. And the result is a Poirot unlike any other: wiry instead of stocky, his age showing even more than his ingenuity, his soul seemingly worn on his sleeve, as he unravels one of Christie’s most dynamic and compelling mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express.
Yando, who for the last fourteen years has been seen playing Scrooge in Goodman Theatre’s annual A Christmas Carol, once more finds himself portraying a man who deeply believes what he believes and is confronted by truths that force him to see things differently. Here, though, instead of the meaning of Christmas, it is Poirot’s unshakable belief in the absoluteness of right and wrong that comes into question in a scintillating, visually fabulous, thoroughly enjoyable version of a mystery that has the potential to shake him to his very core.
It all starts with a completely brilliant script by Ken Ludwig (author of Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You), who was specifically asked to adapt this story by Christie’s estate. The result absolutely wipes the floor with every self-serious version of a Christie mystery that has ever been done. Here, her sense of plotting and character types blends neatly with Ludwig’s trademark humor so much that there are times when, despite the very serious Poirot at its center, the audience might think they are watching a comedy.
Fisch clearly focused her direction on the humorous elements of scenes and characters, letting Poirot—who has a gift for wordplay but never seems to be anything but austere and businesslike—handle the sober and contemplative aspects. Here, the great detective is trying to solve an engagingly twisted locked-door mystery: a man has been stabbed to death on a moving train, and one of eight people has to be the killer. At his side is his longtime friend Monsieur Bouc (Sean Blake), who runs the train line and fears for his livelihood if this heinous crime is not solved before they reach their destination. (Blake has tons of fun playing Bouc, who is seen here as an interesting and often funny foil for Poirot’s no-nonsense approach.)
All of the performances here are outstanding, none more than Janet Ulrich Brooks’ wickedly caustic take on a wealthy, many-times married, obnoxiously loud, and annoying American who is constantly inserting herself into the investigation in ways that do more to hinder it than to help it. Brooks’ character at times dominates things even more than Poirot, and contrasts his tone by being hilarious. The character didn’t need to go in that direction, I think, which makes me more certain of Fisch’s intentions. And if that didn’t do it, Anthony Churchill’s intentionally over-the-top projections would have. After being featured in a dark and serious cold open, they suddenly open up into an explosion of images that, conjoined with music by Mikhail Fiksel and Jeffrey Levin, wouldn’t feel out of place as TV opening credits. It’s gloriously overdone and alerts us to exactly the kind of production this will be.
Also gloriously overdone is Andrew Boyce’s set, which features (of course) the train and, with the use of a turntable, allows us to see into many different cars throughout the show, the previous set transforming into the next one as it revolves. (The opening night audience applauded these set changes at least five times, and they deserved it.)
Add to this the characterizations of the passengers and you have all of the ingredients for a great time. Besides Brooks, there is a Mafia-lite tough guy played by Keith Kupferer, a couple of female travelers spouting dubious accents, a Scottish soldier with anger-management issues and his girlfriend, a ladies’ helper and missionary who is almost terminally shy and very religious, and others. Diane Coates and Ryan Imhoff are especially wonderful in an ensemble that, to judge from the program and the production photos, has had some last-minute shuffling.
In the end, though, it is Yando shining through it all, immersing himself in the self-assured character of Poirot only to find that the great man has plenty of reasons to doubt himself in this one. In a play marked by its overt humor, its glorious set, and its crazy, go-for-broke projections, the deliberately resolute detective is left almost broken, questioning his usually steady and solid philosophies and beliefs. And the confusion playing havoc across Yando’s face tells us everything we need to know: this is a character whose core has indeed been shaken. It turns out that Fisch had much more than humor in mind, and that Yando was the absolute perfect choice for the part.
Murder on the Orient Express tickets can be found at the Drury Lane website; the show runs through 10/23.