On the ‘Orient Express,’ a deadly tale well told

The cast in the Lyric Stage Company’s production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

BOSTON – Sometimes, the most fun comes from the telling of the tale rather than the tale itself.

That’s the case with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

That’s because so many theater-goers will be familiar with the basic plot of  the Agatha Christie novel, the basis of two feature-length films, and a TV production.

If you aren’t familiar with the plot, all the better. Either way, it shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the stagecraft and theatrical wizardry that make the production compelling for all.

Playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend me a Tenor”) gave the piece a makeover with the blessing of the Christie estate, cutting the list of suspects from 12 to 8, injecting a few laughs and moving events ahead at a brisker pace.

Director Spiro Veloudos, helming his first show as a freelance director after stepping down as artistic director of the Lyric Stage, has worked with his team of designers to  ramp up the  production values so the theater-goer is injected headlong onto the Orient Express, the iconic  international rail travel route that at the time Christie situated the story typically ran from Istanbul to Paris.

Will McGarrhan, Remo Airaldi and Celeste Oliva in “Murder on the Orient Express.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

Veloudos was early to the table in realizing that high-definition projections could be used effectively and he here has taken full advantage of the talents of projection designer Seaghan McKay, who has done some  fine work for Veloudos in the past, winning an IRNE for his work on “Sondheim on Sondheim.”

One of the most effective pieces of work is a filmed film noir-style prologue that introduces Daisy Armstrong (Josie Chapuran), a little girl who was kidnapped and murdered some years before the events on the train. It will provide the motive for the murder on the train. Projections will also depict the steaming locomotive and a snowstorm raging outside the train.

The film noir mood of the piece is aided and abetted greatly by the sound design by Dewey Dellay’s original music that both reacts to and predicts what is happening on stage, Scott Clyve’s effective lighting, and the set by Brynna Bloomfield that includes pull-out cabins and details of the opulence that was train travel of the time.

Gail Astrid Buckley’s 1930s costumes are period-perfect, with wig and make up design by Jason Allen including, presumably, the wonderful moustache Remo Airaldi features as Hercule Poirot.

Watching Airaldi, a local treasure, work his magic as the iconic Belgian detective is a delight, as it also is whether it is comic roles in Shakespeare on the Boston Common, “Shakespeare in Love” at the SpeakEasy, or commanding the living room of a Southern mansion at the Lyric in “The Little Foxes.” This is a show where the Lyric’s intimacy allows Airaldi to play it very differently than outside on The Common, and here he is able to convey much with subtle gestures, often letting his eyes do the talking for him.

His Poirot commands the stage without any false modesty. He’s good and he knows it and if others believe it all  the better. One of his best friends is Monsieur Bouc (Will McGarrahan), who runs the train company that owns the Orient Express, which for some reason is inexplicably full  for this off-season journey.

A man named Samuel Ratchett (Davron S. Monroe) seeks Poirot’s help in finding out who is sending him threatening letters. He turns out to be a very nasty sort who was involved in the murder of the young child; Monroe doubles up as another traveler and suspect, Colonel Arbuthnot.

When snow forces the Orient Express to make an unscheduled stop in the mountains, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin. It becomes apparent that the killer, indeed, is on board and Poirot makes it his mission to find him or her before the murderer has a chance to escape.

And even though Ludwig has winnowed the number of possible suspects from an unwieldy 12 to 8, but it is still a fine collection of eclectic, mysterious characters, some of them, like Airaldi, Lyric Stage mainstays and others making their debuts.

Sarah deLima makes for an elegant Russian Princess Dragomiroff, who is accompanied by a Swede named Greta Ohlsson (Marge Dunn, Lyric Stage debut) who has done extensive work as a missionary; nonpareil character actress Kerry A. Dowling is Helen Hubbard, a brassy man-eating American housewife;  Hector McQueen (Michael John Ciszewski was Ratchett’s secretary and friend; Mary Debenham (Rosa Procaccino) is Colonel Arbuthnot’s fragile lover; the medically-trained Countess Andrenyi (Celeste Oliva) is traveling alone and catches Poirot’s eye early; and last but not least Michael, the ultra-efficient and amiable conductor (Scot Colford).

Along the way Ludwig has fashioned some particularly delicious verbal jousts, including one  between deLima’s Princess and Dowling’s Hubbard in which The Princess royally, systematically slices and dices the brassy woman.

It all comes together during the scene in which Poirot dissects the crime before the assembled suspects, and the denouement, Poirot explains at the end, would haunt him until the end of his days.

Something tells me that Veloudos found this particular production to be both a lot of work and great fun, and the audience reaps the rewards.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express. Adapted by Ken Ludwig, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Scenic Design, Brynna Bloomfield; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Scott Clyve; Sound Design and Original Music, Dewey Dellay; Projection Design, Seaghan McKay; Dialect Coach, Bryn Austin; Wig and Make Up Design, Jason Allen; Through Dec. 22 at Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com