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Set Piece: Agatha Christie’s Classy Choo Choo Crime Classic Rides Again

Ed Rampell: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts’ crowd pleasing production of Agatha Christie’s beloved 1934 Murder on the Orient Express is a highly entertaining combination of murder, mystery, mirth and morality.
Orient Express

Back Row: Julia Aks, Christine Dunford and Anne Gee Byrd & Front Row: Tony Amendola, Zarah Mahler, Rachel Seiferth, Matthew Floyd Miller

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS THEATRE REVIEW

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts’ crowd pleasing production of Agatha Christie’s beloved 1934 Murder on the Orient Express is a highly entertaining combination of murder, mystery, mirth and morality. Stage and screen stalwart Tony Amendola steps into the spats-covered shoes of Christie’s character Hercule Poirot, the quirky Belgian detective previously portrayed by Albert Finney and Kenneth Branagh (sporting the world’s worst mustache) in star-studded 1974 and 2017 movie versions of Christie’s bestseller, and by Alfred Molina and renowned Poirot portrayer David Suchet in 2001 and 2010 TV versions of Orient Express. The iteration currently on the boards is the West Coast premiere of the first stage rendition of Christie’s novel, written by Ken Ludwig (whose comedic Lend Me a Tenor has also been performed at La Mirada’s beautiful venue).

Following a quick curtain raising shocker, the two-acter moves to Istanbul where we first encounter Poirot at a café, after he has wrapped up a case far from London, where he must go to investigate yet another crime demanding his expertise. To ensure a speedy trip to England, with the help of his friend and compatriot Monsieur Bouc (Time Winters), a director of the railways company, the Belgian sleuth books a compartment aboard the sleek, luxurious Orient Express, noted for its swift and classy cross-continental train treks.

Orient Express

Tony Amendola, Zarah Mahler and Time Winters

This being a Poirot novel written by mystery novelist extraordinaire Agatha Christie, foul play, but of course ensues. Crime follows Poirot the way scandals follow Trump. Passenger Samuel Ratchett (Matthew Floyd Miller, who also plays Col. Arbuthnot), an obnoxious American gets, shall we say, his just desserts. Poirot is pressed into service to solve the dastardly deed as he investigates the cast of colorful characters.

They include: Countess Andrenyi (Zarah Mahler, who rather memorably played Jenny in a 2009 version of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at International City Theatre); Princess (or gee, is she?) Dragonmiroff (Anne Gee Byrd of the Antaeus Theatre Company, which Amendola is a founding member of) and the oft-married, wannabe swanky Yankee Helen Hubbard, who for some reason has a penchant for warbling (the delightfully daffy Christine Dunford), et al.

Poirot is meant to be an embodiment of the notion of justice, an upright detective who unravels crimes and delivers law and order. In the course of his probe aboard the Orient Express, which is stranded by snowfall in former Yugoslavia, Poirot stumbles upon two possible solutions to Ratchett’s eponymous murder. One of them is abhorrent to Poirot, this righteous man of the law, forcing him to wrestle with his soul. But as this production is meant to amuse and isn’t a heavy drama (despite its homicidal subject matter), what could have been an inner conflict of Hamletian proportions about the nature of true justice is more merely mentioned in passing, rather than dwelled upon. Twelve Angry Men (Laguna Playhouse movingly mounted this heavy drama in 2017) this ain’t.

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Sheldon Epps, until recently Pasadena Playhouse’s artistic director, oversees and ably directs his ensemble. Costume designer Shon LeBlanc garbs the characters in convincing 1930s era period dress, down to the gents’ spats. For my money, the real stars of this production are scenic designer Stephen Gifford and his set. Gifford exquisitely puts his experience and acumen designing 150-plus productions to work in recreating the Orient Express, that exemplar of elegant rail travel. Full of period details, Gifford’s interiors of the sleeping cars, the dining cars and so on of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits are optically opulent, making the stage shine. Sumptuous to behold, they are a sight for the eye to behold and Mr. Gifford should be remembered during awards season for his singular work, with its all-seeing eye for detail.

Orient Express

Christie’s choo-choo novel actually seems to have been inspired by the 1932 kidnapping of aviator and America First-er Charles Lindbergh’s baby. Theatergoers searching for a good fun time at the stage will have more luck than “Lucky Lindy” if they buy a ticket to ride aboard this express to escapist entertainment way down yonder at La Mirada.

Murder on the Orient Express is being performed 7:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8:00 p.m. on Fridays; 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Saturdays; and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays through Nov. 11 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA. For info see: www.lamiradatheatre.com or call: (562)944-9801 or (714)994-6310.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.) To read about Rampell’s recent misadventures aboard another luxury train, Switzerland’s Glacier Express, see: https://intheknowtraveler.com/marooned-near-the-matterhorn-escape-from-snowed-in-zermatt/.