When Murder on the Orient Express opens as part of the Alley Theatre’s annual Summer Chills series, it will mark the company directorial debut of Rob Melrose, the Alley’s new artistic director.
“I’ve been looking forward to drawing on the company’s wealth of experience in bringing Agatha Christie stories to life,” he says.
The show incorporates all of the company’s resident actors who are working with a new script by Ken Ludwig, the playwright responsible for this summer’s spunky The Three Musketeers.
“It’s a pretty faithful adaption,” Melrose explains, “and Christie never wrote a play version of this story. Ken has a great sense of rhythm to the story.”
Based on a novel of the same name, Murder on the Orient Express is the story of the famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery aboard the famous train. With all of the passengers as suspects, Christie’s who-done-it has become perhaps the most iconic mystery ever written.
Bringing a train to life on stage obviously posed challenges for the company. Melrose says they were given a boost in how to look at staging it from the way Ludwig wrote the script. It’s a memory play, says Melrose, wherein we meet Poirot looking back at one of the great mysteries of his career.
“He basically says, let me tell you about one of the hardest cases of my career,” Melrose said. “That gave us the freedom to allow it unfold in his memory. We’ve used steel and glass, which still gives us that art deco feel. We call it the ghost train—it’s almost transparent and hovers above the thrust.”
Scenes unfold in various places around the stage that fill in for individual cabins or the dining car. Melrose thinks audiences will enjoy seeing the classic story in a new way, but one that isn’t so new as to be unrecognizable.
“Some people, when they found out we were doing a Ken Ludwig adaption, asked, 'Is it a send up of Murder on the Orient Express?'” Melrose said. “It’s not. There’s certainly humor, but it really stays true to the story.”
Melrose believes that those who’ve become regulars at the Summer Chills series will be pleased. When he took the helm at the theater, he know that while changes might be on the horizon eventually, he was keeping the popular summer series.
“Summer Chills is an important tradition at the Alley,” he said. “I’m totally committed to it.”
July 19–Aug 25. Tickets from $28. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.