Murder on the Orient Express

Pit & Balcony Community Theatre Kicks Off 90th Season with an Agatha Christie Classic

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, ,   From Issue 919   By: Robert E Martin

16th September, 2021     0

We can all use the wit, panache, and engagement of a little Agatha Christie right now, so leave it to the creative crew at Pit & Balcony Community Theatre to fulfill those needs with the regional premier of playwright Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Christie’s famous whodunit classic Murder on the Orient Express to kick-off their 90th season.

Christie wrote the thriller in 1934, and it’s been widely adapted for radio, film, television, and even a computer game. But there hasn’t been a stage version until the late writer’s estate chose Ludwig (who also has written Lend me a Tenor and Noon Over Buffalo)  to adapt the novel for stage.

It debuted in 2017 with a cast led by Kenneth Branagh, and now Director Todd Thomas along with Assistant Director Jake Pearsall are charged with the challenge of working with a cast of 10 talented actors to deliver this tightly woven, delightful, and funny adaptation of perhaps one of the most definitive and stylish murder mysteries ever written, replete with its observations about humankind’s darker impulses and hidden agendas.

Orient Express features one of Christie’s finest inventions, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who will be portrayed by actor Matt Kehoe.  Poirot is supposed to be on holiday in Istanbul, but is called back to London by Scotland Yard.

He secures a berth on the famed Orient Express and looks forward to the luxury and fine dining promised by his friend, Monsieur Bouc, a director of the railway. Poirot barely gets comfortable in the splendid first-class cabin before calamity strikes. The train is stick in a snowdrift and one of his fellow passengers, a toughie gangster type by the name of Samuel Ratchett, is found in bed stabbed to death multiple times. Bouc insists that Poirot solve the crime before they get to London, so Poirot uses his classic methodical questioning of the passengers and crew, utilizing an indelible combination of dash and diligence tinged with a tear-drop of humor to the harrowing interrogations.

Given the intricately woven nature of the plot line, which in Christie’s original novel renders an intricate series of seemingly improbable scenarios that are constructed in a manner that seem entirely plausible; how different is Ludwig’s adaptation from Christie’s original work?

“This particular version is very close to and not that different from Christie’s original novel,” reflects Thomas. “What Ludwig has done in his typical fashion is make the characters a little bit bigger than they are in the novel.  We know they all have different accents and appear to come from very different backgrounds, so he bumps those distinctions up a bit and translates it to the stage in a way that is really engaging. While some of the comedy in the novel is funny, it’s not laugh out loud funny, so Ludwig achieves that while sticking pretty close to the main story.”

“From a set standpoint, we’re being a little more creative,” continues Thomas. “It’s difficult on the theatrical stage to go from a hotel in Istanbul to outside of a train to a dining car and then to the outside of cabins, so we have a little more creative approach involved with how we manage the sets.”

“As for the cast and the way we’re approaching the play, it’s pretty straightforward. Of all the Poirot novels, this one has a bit of a dark side where Poirot is forced into making decisions that are hard to make, so I’m trying to focus more on him as a person rather than a stereotype.  But with the element of farce Ludwig has added into his adaptation, everybody is kind of a stereotype. I’m not trying to be overly clever with it and am letting the writing lead the way.”

For Assistant Director Jake Pearsall, this production affords him a unique opportunity to immerse himself more within the theatrical experience. “I started out as a props manager for The Great Gatsby here at Pit & Balcony and then as a stage manager for The Winkleigh Murders, so this is my first opportunity to assistant direct. I graduated from Arthur Hill High School and theatre is always something I’ve loved, but just never got my foot in the door. One day a cast member from Gatsby said they needed a props manager, so I came in and they snatched me off the street and now here I am as an Assistant Director.”

“I think what makes this production engaging for younger audiences is the creativity we have to go through for developing the sets, as we are jumping around a lot creatively to transition scenes on the stage. This involves creativity not just from the director, but also from the stage manager, so now seeing the directorial aspect of how these productions are woven together, it’s a bit different and I’m mainly sitting back and watching how a director can fashion together an entire show.”

In terms of the cast, Todd Thomas is enthusiastic about the talents of the one he has assembled. “One of the things in my directing I’ve always done is that if a character has a regional accent and everybody in the cast has the same accent, then it doesn’t really matter; but in this show there are a lot of nationalities and accents represented, so I try to use people that pick up on that accent or already have it, so the audience can tell what country each character comes from.”

Matt Kehoe is in the lead role of Poirot and he’s been in a lot of the show’s I’ve directed, notes Todd. “This is the biggest role I’ve worked him on because he’s out there and only leaves the stage twice during the entire production. Paul Lutenske is a long time participant on the stage of Pit & Balcony and he portrays the role of Monsieur Bouc, with Katie Sundeerman portraying Countess Andrenyi. We also have Shawn Finney and Zoe Gilbert, who was 14 years old the first time she acted in a production for me and will now be turning 18 during this production. It’s always fun to have people return to the stage at a different point of life than when you first worked with them. Rounding out the cast are Leslie Larkins and Emily Shaw, who lives in Midland but moved to Saginaw recently; and Bill McCartney who’s also from Midland.  We have a lot of experience on the stage which makes it a lot more fun. This is really an ensemble production and all the characters spend a lot of time on the stage. It’s not the type of show where any one actor is able to go to the Green Room and take a break. We all have to focus together.”

“That’s the biggest challenge,” continues Thomas. “We haven’t really become that ensemble yet and sometimes that’s the biggest challenge - getting people to connect so they are telling the story together. Any one of these actors are great at acting and storytelling on their own, but to get the whole group to tell the story in a coherent way is the biggest challenge with a production of this nature. But it’s also the most fun as a director to fit all the pieces together.”

“It’s also been a great experience working with Jake,” adds Thomas. “It’s easy to make an assistant director role as a bit of a runner to do this and that, but what I find enjoyable are those times where I do something with a director’s intent and can turn to Jake and tell him the reason behind what I did. When you get an assistant director who’s interesting in learning those techniques, it makes it enjoyable all around. When I’m teaching I’m paying a little closer attention and maybe doing things a little better myself.”

“One of the things I find really enjoyable about this production is that it’s a truly masterfully written play, concludes Thomas. “It has so many diverse characters and one of the things I’ve noticed working with these characters is that all of them at some point drop clues along the way that help solve the mystery, which teaches you how to listen in a way and pull everything together.”

Pit & Balcony’s production of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ will take place Friday through Sunday October 1-3 & 8-10. Performance times are 7:30 PM Fridays & Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 3:00 PM. General admission tickets are $20 and can be purchased at the Box Office or by visiting




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