Murder, Agatha Christie wrote
Wait, what? No Jessica Fletcher? Amid regally conquering the Broadway stage and Hollywood films, the luminous Angela Lansbury for 12 seasons, dominated Sunday evening TV with “Murder, She Wrote.” Her character was patterned after Agatha Christie’s astute sleuth, who also quietly earns confidences while uncovering secrets to expose killers.
No fan of murder mysteries, I can be excused that Hercule Poirot is not Jessica Fletcher, right? The Pioneer Theatre Company production is not what I imagined: “Jessica Fletcher’s Murder on the Orient Express, She Wrote.” Furthering my confusion, though Christie’s name begins the title, Ken Ludwig wrote the 2017 stage script — by request of the protective Agatha Christie Estate, it should be noted.
As the preeminent comic playwright, Ludwig is widely known for his clever turn-of-phrases and witticisms. His plays, including “Lend Me a Tenor,” “The Game’s Afoot,” and “Crazy for You,” are widely performed across the country and translated into as many as 16 languages. Appearing first as a paradox, Ludwig’s droll antics are seamlessly combined with Christie’s hefty drama.
PTC’s “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express” is a comedic delight with vividly portrayed, memorable characters while closely following Christie’s intriguing murder mystery. The superb performances and skilled stagecraft elevate the production to stand alongside the company’s finest works.
The actors’ eclectic characters are distinct and diverse, originating from many parts of the world. Their backgrounds are as varied as their accents, skillfully guided by dialect coach Adrianne Moore, a welcome addition to many Utah productions. Jason Simms’ scenic design of a functioning railway coach is masterful, along with a beautifully draped, luxurious period-perfect wardrobe by the company’s resident costume designer Phillip R. Lowe. (In a dream world, my home’s closet would be suddenly complete by Lowe’s fine tailorings.)
It’s no coincidence that these characters happen to be traveling on the same fabled trans-European express train with an unsuspected connection uniting the characters at the convoluted conclusion. That is the captivating twist Christie introduces.
Director Melissa Rain Anderson establishes a delightful pace, never skipping a beat. Without ever allowing the silly to overtake the serious, it’s the only time we leave an Agatha Christie play with a wide smile.
John Tufts confidently portrays the world’s greatest detective Hercule Poirot. He superbly creates the wry center around which the extravagant characters revolve. Agatha would approve. Jessica, too.
Edward Juvier, as Monsieur Bouc, is a knowing, understated sidekick to Poirot. Anne Tolpegin chews scenery divinely as a meddling, snoopy American tourist, Helen Hubbard. As Russian princess Dragomiroff, Bonnie Black is a wonderful crotchety woman with oft-surprising lines.
The rest of the cast members are at the top of their game, getting into the ’30s spirit with elegance and a touch of screwball.
Climb aboard, theatergoers. Become enthralled passengers on Pioneer’s first-class Orient Express. It’s a wholly enjoyable excursion.
For more information on Pioneer Theatre’s “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” see their website at pioneertheatre.org