I have always loved the “Summer Chills” tradition at The Alley—a mystery or whodunit to get everyone out of the heat and into the theater. What could be better?
This summer’s selection, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, is a great ride. Trust me—even if you know who murdered Samuel Ratchett (Chris Hutchison), you will still be entertained. How can this be? Well, Agatha Christie is not the bestselling novelist in history for nothing, and Ken Ludwig’s adaptation strikes the perfect balance of the cerebral and the comic under the deft direction of Rob Melrose, the Alley’s new artistic director.
First let me say that the scenic design (Michael Locher) is art deco divine. I loved the train being high up, while other dramatic events were below. Very effective. The Alley has been superlative with sets for a long time, and this show is no different. Indeed, the visual aspects (including a dining room where certain characters eat before boarding the train) are so appealing, dovetail well with the excellent music and sound (Cliff Caruthers) and lighting (Cat Tate Starmer) that even though I just saw that movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Kenneth Branagh, this stage production felt fresh, new, and fun.
I must also mention the excellent costume design of Raquel Barreto, who dresses a range of ages with varying glamour quotients. But since character is such a force in this play, and you have some characters who are pretending to be someone that they are not, costuming stakes are higher in order to suspend the level of disbelief that Murder on the Orient Express requires. I particularly loved the women’s costumes that captured the social stations of each character.
But let’s face it: Agatha Christie’s mysteries are fun to figure out because you get caught up in the characters, and if you don’t have an excellent actor playing Hercule Poirot, well, forget it. Fortunately, Rob Melrose brought in David Sinaiko, and his Poirot is so witty and his accent so perfect for his role that I hope they bring him back for another Agatha Christie play so he can reprise it. Sinaiko is a natural comedian and a master of the witty comeback. He also doesn’t stray from the characteristics that Christie fans expect of Poirot. Watching him explain his logic in solving the murder case is one of the highlights of the show—even if you already know the outcome.
This particular play requires a strong ensemble cast, and the Alley delivers here too, providing a reminder of the advantages of having a resident acting company. I did overhear that someone thought that there was “too much overacting,” but in a way, the times were more dramatic in the way people expressed themselves (just look at the films and footage of the 1930s), and a lot of the characters are playing roles that are far removed from their true identities. They are highly motivated to “act” as someone they are not.
I didn’t see it as "overacting" as much as an opportunity for character acting in a play that requires us to think about heavier things like identity, justice, and revenge—all executed in a palatable way, punctuated by witty retorts and comedy. Some of the standouts to me (aside from Sinaiko) were Shawn Hamilton as Monsieur Blanc; I loved his accent and the way he reacted to a murder happening on the Orient Express. Dylan Godwin plays Hector MacQueen as nervous and understated, and since he can play anything, it is another reminder of his formidable range as an actor. Todd Waite was a believable conductor, and Houston favorite Susan Koozin was a wonderful crotchety Russian princess with some great (and often surprising) lines. Elizabeth Bunch nailed her Minnesota accent and, well, you must see the play to watch her dance the Charleston and make demands and flirt with all the foreigners on the express—it is a marvel to watch.
This ensemble really makes this play work, or should I say stay on track? I loved every minute, and it is really saying something to watch a drama that you have experienced in other forms (book, other plays, and film) and yet you are still taken in and interested the whole time. Get on board—it’s a great ride.
Thru August 25. Tickets from $28. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.