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The Orient Express, that vaunted ’30s luxury train that spirited passengers from Paris through central and eastern Europe to its final stop, Istanbul, Turkey, is about to barrel through Southern California – and believe it or not, it’s the first time Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel has been seen in a live theater production.
Though many of Christie’s stories have been adapted to the stage, including stage versions penned by Dame Agatha herself, “Murder on the Orient Express” had until recently only been committed to film.
But around 2012, Christie’s heirs decided it was high time the celebrated Hercule Poirot story was brought to the stage. Their first choice was Tony- and Olivier award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig.
His adaptation world premiered in March, 2017, at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, followed up by a second production at Hartford Stage in Connecticut.
Now, the show’s third production will be its West Coast premiere at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, with a preview performance on Oct. 19 and a regular run from Oct. 20 to Nov. 11.
The story is widely known: As the Orient Express is barrelling back to Western Europe from Istanbul, it’s stopped by heavy snowfall.
Among its many passengers is Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played in La Mirada by Tony Amendola), who aims to solve a murder that’s discovered to have taken place – and he’s got no shortage of suspects, each of whom has good reason to have wanted Samuel Ratchett (Matthew Floyd Miller) dead.
Ludwig said he was happy and excited when his agent “got a call from out of the blue from the Agatha Christie Estate saying they hadn’t had any of her books adapted (for the stage) going back 20 or 30 years, and they were now in a new mode of doing TV adaptations and taking up the Poirot banner.”
“They wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing an adaptation, and asked me if I had one (of Christie’s novels) in mind. I suggested ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ because it’s such a great classic.”
He speculates that “part of the reason they chose me” was that he had just won the Edgar Award for “The Game’s Afoot,” his mystery about William Gillette, the 1930s actor who created the iconic look of Sherlock Holmes for the stage. Nor is Ludwig a stranger to literary adaptations, having brought “The Three Musketeers,” “Treasure Island” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to the stage.
Ludwig said none of the “Orient Express” film versions – including 1974’s, which starred Albert Finney as Poirot, and a 2001 made-for-television movie – had any influence upon his work, primarily because of the drastic differences between the mediums of film and theater.
He said the movies “became irrelevant to the process” of working directly from the source novel and that his script “is meant to be a faithful adaptation.”
While Ludwig’s script, director Sheldon Epps noted, contains the playwright’s “signature wit and humor,” Ludwig said he saw no need to inject humorous touches of his own since the quirks and eccentricities of Christie’s characters generate plenty of laughs.
In line with this, he noted, are the many similarities in structure and characters between stage mysteries and comedies. Traditional mysteries like those penned by Christie and her peers from the ’20s through the ’50s “have a lot in comic elements” – and that both genres “work in much the same way, as puzzles that all come together in the end in a satisfying way.”
Ludwig said he revelled in Christie’s “genius for story and characters,” describing the “Orient Express” characters as “extravagant, interesting, fun and full of life.”
Director Epps said balancing “drastically different tones” that include humor, profundity, wit, darkness, and romance is essential to navigating something like “Orient Express” on stage.
For Ludwig, the challenge rested in creating the adaptation was primarily “a practical one because the action is set largely on a train, which by nature in theater is shallow – and (the stage version) had to be a somewhat realistic representation of the Orient Express.”
Ludwig said the trick in adapting the novel was in “keeping a complex story going with that many characters, getting to all the different places on the train, and making that work on stage.”
Christie herself, Ludwig said, was “a great playwright” with notable West End hits that have included “Witness for the Prosecution,” “And Then There Were None” and, of course, “The Mousetrap.” His awareness of this gave him “a sense of responsibility – that they have entrusted me with something pretty terrific and I really want to do this as well as I can.”
He’s hoping La Mirada audiences have “the greatest and most fun experience they’ve ever had in the theater,” and that the reaction the play elicits is “what a night in the theater!”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.