There is no mystery why the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has become South Florida’s preeminent stage company over the course of its 20 years of existence. The clues are all on display in the expert ensemble cast and stunning design elements that add up to a production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express that must be seen to be believed.
Christie’s 1934 novel, a most challenging case for her renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, has, of course, been made into films, in 1974 and again six years ago. But it had never been adapted for the stage until the mistress of mystery’s estate commissioned Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy For You) to apply his skills at plotting and quipping to the task.
Murder on the Orient Express, an acknowledged favorite of Christie’s, is also one of her darker tales, inspired as it was by the then-recent kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby. Remarkably, Ludwig was able to retain that mood of melancholy while injecting strokes of often broad comedy throughout the evening.
Seemingly undaunted by the show’s massive technical requirements, director Peter Amster — who staged such previous Maltz sleuthfests as The Mousetrap and The 39 Steps — engineers a highly cinematic production that should enthrall theatergoers, even if they already know Christie’s unconventional conclusion.
Following a filmed prologue of the abduction of little Daisy Armstrong, we meet fastidious Poirot. He is about to board the famed luxury train in Istanbul, headed for Calais, expecting a pleasant joy ride but soon reluctantly plunged into a perplexing murder case.
The victim is obnoxious American businessman Samuel Ratchett, found dead from eight stab wounds to the chest in his train compartment, locked from the inside. The more Poirot investigates and interrogates the well-heeled passengers — a Russian princess, a Hungarian countess, a Swedish missionary, a British colonel and his governess lover, a boisterous Minnesota widow and Ratchett’s put-upon male secretary — he realizes they each had a connection and a motive to do in Ratchett.
The plot conforms to what would become Christie’s formula. With the characters cut off from the outside world — the train halted by a snow drift in the Yugoslavian mountains — and the killer still among them, Poirot gathers the group in the dining car to explain what his “little grey cells” have deduced.
Andrew Sellon (seen previously in the Maltz’s 39 Steps and others) anchors this production as Poirot, though less quirky than he is usually portrayed. In a solid cast, Laura Turnbull is a standout as randy chatterbox Helen Hubbard. She apparently did not get the memo that this was not a musical, as she breaks out into a raucous rendition of “Lullabye of Broadway.”
Jordan Sobel does double duty as Ratchett — briefly — and as hot-headed Colonel Arbuthnot. Lucy Lavely is a distinct asset as wound-too-tight missionary Gretta and David Breitbarth is nicely understated as the Orient Express’s top executive and Poirot’s friend/confidant, sort of Watson to Poirot’s Holmes.
Thanks to the scenic design by Paul Tate Depoo III, the train is virtually another character in the production. Placed on a stage-wide revolve, it changes from compartment to compartment. And when coupled with Greg Emetaz’s background projections and Mathew Parker’s sound design, the effect is of a train clattering down the tracks. Factor in James E. Lawlor’s moody lighting and Tracy Dorman’s ritzy costumes and you have a production that is dressed to kill.
Ultimately, beyond a mere whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express asks us to ponder the dynamic between the law and justice. But if you are not interested in such heady thoughts, the Maltz show can be enjoyed as pure armchair detective entertainment.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Rd., Jupiter. Through Sun., Nov. 12. $50-$95. 561-575-2223.