‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is a thrilling ride at Rockville Little Theatre

A first-class production of Ken Ludwig's cracking adaptation of Agatha Christie's beloved, classic mystery.

Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries — it was her own favorite — and her incomparable Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, calls it his most difficult. It was first published in 1934 and has been adapted for film and stage innumerable times since. The original is perhaps intentionally confusing, comprised of many characters with backstories complicated enough to fill an entire novel.

This 2017 stage adaptation, by prolific playwright Ken Ludwig, does a good job of keeping up the excitement while streamlining the number of red herrings and combining the cast of characters (and so, suspects) — as long as you can swallow the idea that a woman in the 1920s could become a doctor and then go on to marry a Hungarian count. But what would a good murder mystery be without some wildly improbable coincidences? Since her unflappable intelligence, even more than her beauty, proves irresistible to Poirot, she also provides a source of wry amusement. And that is the best addition that Ludwig makes to the famous story — humor. Contemporary retellings of just about any story require their share of quips and zingers, and this adaptation provides them in abundance.

Rockville Little Theatre’s production is elegant and entertaining, chugging along in style just like its namesake.

Lisa Singleton, Tom Howley, and Peter Harrold in ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ Photo by Greg Skolnik.

The technical aspects of the show are excellent. The full-size train set — er, set representing two cars of the famous train — by Bill Pressly is lavishly bedecked in gold leaf, faux wood paneling, and painted trim in fine Art Deco style. Particularly impressive are the angular stained glass wall sconces and the three different cranes (a popular avian motif at the time) depicted on the doors of the sleeping cabins by Set Painter Katherine Rogers. The set is massive, and the sleeping car must periodically be uncoupled and swept offstage while the dining car is rotated upstage by a crew of eight hardworking stagehands. Music is used to cover these transitions, although they are almost impressive enough to be entertaining in themselves. One would think that there would have been a way, however, to pre-set the dining car before the boarding scene, so that the first long transition didn’t need to take place behind curtains before the set’s first, applause-inducing reveal. Effective projections by Stephen Deming represent the falling snow and the rocky pass in which the train becomes trapped (although it might have been better if some of the snowflakes didn’t appear the size of dinner plates). Deming’s design also expertly employs lighting to indicate flashbacks. Smoke serves well as a motif to represent the train, also to introduce Poirot’s narration at the beginning and the end. The play makes extensive use of Aaron Skolnik’s sound design to provide everything from significant flashbacks to railroad sounds to radio communications between the train and the nearby stations. Jennifer Morrissey and Becky Bucci’s costumes range from suitable for the male characters — particularly the uniformed train conductor and preening Poirot — to sumptuously gorgeous for the luxurious female characters, the Countess, the Princess, and rich Mrs. Hubbard.

Director Laura Andruski keeps the train running on time, which given the complexity of all the moving parts, is no mean feat. It takes skill to juggle a massive set, special effects, a murder victim, multiple clues, and characters with a bewildering variety of accents, which are handled well (although at times the accents seem emphasized at the expense of understanding the dialogue).

TOP: Tom Howley as Hercule Poirot; ABOVE: (back row) Tom Howley, Peter Harrold, Nathan Chadwick, Meghan Williams Elkins; (front row) Lisa Singleton, Lily Tender, Nate Eagle, Amazon Skolnik, in ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ Photos by Greg Skolnik.

Nevertheless, the actors do a fine job. Sanjeev Dev, as the Headwaiter, steals the end of his brief scene with a well-timed forehead smack. Nate Eagle and Lily Tender (such appropriate names!) present spiffy stiff upper lips to cover their passion as the lovers, Scottish Colonel Arbuthnot and English Mary Debenham. David Dieudonné manages to truly terrify even in his brief appearance as the villain Ratchet, and Aaron Skolnik quails convincingly as his brow-beaten assistant, Hector MacQueen. Nathan Chadwick as the conductor Michel and Peter Harrold as the train company representative Contantine Bouc represent the French contingent (Harrold’s accent seems unfortunately at times the most difficult to decipher). Harlene Leahy as Princess Dragomiroff and Nancy Somers as Greta Ohlsson— the Princess, acid-tongued and tiny, towered over by her dim, hooting, Swedish companion — provide continual comic delight. Lisa Singleton’s Countess Elena Adrenyi makes us believe in both her elegance and expertise, and her interactions with Poirot are charming. Meghan Williams Elkins’s Helen Hubbard is a force unto herself. Loud, unabashed, flirtatious, but steely with a secret underneath, she channels a compelling combination of Ethel Merman and a middle-aged Mata Hari.

And then there is the actor upon whom all else depends, Tom Howley as Poirot. Howley, a talented and seasoned actor, a classic trouper, handles the challenge of being on stage almost the entire show with command and aplomb. Even when he was temporarily taken ill on opening night, he instinctively managed to find the most suspenseful moment of the show to do it. After a brief pause, he returned to continue, to massive applause, and finished the play expertly. As effective as the event was at ratcheting up the drama, here’s hoping Howley gets some well-deserved rest and the rest of the run is less eventful.

All in all, this is a first-class production of a cracking adaptation of a beloved, classic mystery. If you’re a fan of the story, get your tickets now. And if you’re one of the dozen or so people in the world who have not seen some version of Murder on the Orient Express, run, don’t walk, to catch this train. You’re in for a thrilling ride.

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express plays through May 12, 2024 (Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm), presented by Rockville Little Theatre performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville Civic Center Park, 603 Edmonston Dr, Rockville, MD. Purchase tickets ($22; $20 for students and seniors) online.

COVID Safety: Masks optional.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
Adapted by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Laura W. Andruski

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past [mumble] decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters, and programs, and generally theatrically meddled on several continents. She has made a specialty of playing old bats — no, make that “mature, empowered women” — including Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest (twice); Mama Rose in Gypsy and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd — when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.”) She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easygoing. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies. Most recently, she directed, costumed, and designed and painted the set for Rockville Little Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer, for which she won the WATCH Award for Outstanding Set Painting. In real life, she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.


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