There’s much to anticipate when a theater company as accomplished as the Omaha Community Playhouse tackles an Agatha Christie favorite such as Murder on the Orient Express as adapted to the stage by Ken Ludwig, a playwright famed for some of the funniest modern comedies.
But that also means it arrives with the heavy baggage of our familiarity with the novel, the movies and their treatments of Hercule Poirot, who director Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek aptly identifies as the “little Belgian with a funny mustache.” Given that Ludwig elevates the comedic prospects of the play, we must accept a less subtle version than the usual Poirot.
That means we get a more exuberant Poirot, played quite credibly by Seth Maisel, but it also means some of the audience will struggle a bit with his accent and those of the other non-American characters on the train from Istanbul to Paris. I’m sure the accents coached by Susan Baer Collins were authentic enough, but they weren’t always clear to my aging ears.
Maisel looked and sounded Poirot-like and he was supported by something missing during these pandemic days: a delightful cast of a dozen rather than the recent two-character productions.
As measured by audience response on preview night, the most delightful were Connie Lee as Mrs. Hubbard and Daena Schweiger as Princess Dragamiroff. From the dance teacher in Stepping Out to Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, Connie Lee always brightens a show with her presence, and this time it took closer scrutiny to recognize her as the character author Ludwig most successfully used to turn the time-honored mystery into a comedy.
Costume designer Lindsay Pape helped transform Schweiger into a memorably attired Princess and Schweiger gave her a wonderfully droll delivery. Brennan Thomas as an ominously dark Samuel Ratchett, Brian Priesman as Hector MacQueen and Jennifer Gilg as Countess Andrenyl were other standouts.
Given the familiarity of the story, it may be less important to not reveal its mystery, but this review will spare any spoilers. Suffice it to say, dire and bloody deeds occur on the luxury choo-choo and Poirot must sort them out and weigh the true meaning of justice.
It was a treat to await the work of designer Jim Othuse as the time of the train’s departure neared. The atmosphere of the pre-departure depot and the sounds of the train’s arrival were particularly appealing, the actual passenger cabins less so. I guess I hoped for a little more sense of the lavish luxuriousness of the famed Express. Don’t misunderstand: the passenger compartments worked quite well to support the action of the play.
It gave some pause to read the director’s definition of Hercule Poirot as “Christie’s most famous character.” He may be right but let’s not forgot the marvelous Jane Marple.
Murder on the Orient Express runs through Oct. 10 on the Hawks Mainstage of the Omaha Community Playhouse at 6915 Cass St. with performances Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets for $25 to $45 are available at ticketomaha.com or by calling 402.553.0800.