Allow me to take the liberty — or rather take the local than the express — and call the hugely entertaining new McCarter Theater play “Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express — by way of ‘Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express’ by way of Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Calais Coach.’”
Whether you previously took the trip with the 1934 book — which first appeared in America with the Calais Coach name — or through the 1974 all-star film, this world premiere stage version directed by Emily Mann once again brings the 16 or so suspects and the inimitable detective Hercule Poirot into a delightfully silly concoction of murder, mystery, and mayhem.
One becomes automatically suspicious of this production’s motives as we take in the spectacular evocation of the famous train’s plush interior and pristine exterior by set designer Beowulf Boritt — which under the glow of Ken Billington’s masterful lighting is simply breathtaking. Then it’s all aboard the famously smoke-belching express as we also drop our jaws in awe at the sumptuous attire created for the characters by the brilliant costume designer William Ivey Long.
A glance at the program at the number of A-list performers involved offers additional clues. So forget about this crack train’s traditional route between Calais and Istanbul, this train with all its international (using the term loosely) cargo has its engine irrefutably heading towards Broadway.
The train, a glistening fabrication of black and gold and red Deco decor moves on a notably visible track with the same speed as the often very funny dialogue — in which zingers abound. If many of the characters are given to twisting their tongues around their hilariously phony and often incomprehensible European accents, you won’t find getting thrown off the track of comprehension a deterrent to your enjoyment.
The time is 1934 and Poirot is at the top of his game. Except for a short prologue in the Paris train station, the action takes place aboard the train and within the various sleeping cars or “wagons-lit” as the French call them. This, as the Express hurtles to its destination and with Poirot’s inevitable solving of a murder that may come or not come as a surprise.
What is not a surprise are the exuberant performances by a company whose members seem to be having the times of their lives — except for the one who can’t. What a distinguished charmer the neatly mustached Allan Corduner is as the eminently observant Belgian sleuth. Take that you overly neurotic Sherlock! You almost sigh with relief at how suavely Poirot, in his dapper suit with its red brocade vest, goes about deducing who did what to whom and why. One marvels at his delectable cool as we are also aghast at the deliciously detectable phoniness of those with whom he must mingle.
Although all the supporting players are terrific as they plunge heedlessly into their extravagantly exaggerated characterizations, I have to give the biggest shout-out to Julie Halston, as the loud-mouth, egregiously, if purposely, scene-stealing Helen Hubbard.
Halston, whose renown began as a member of Charles Busch’s legendary theater company, reached a peak (among many) in the recent Broadway revival of “You Can’t Take It With You.” Totally inhabiting her formidably gregarious character, Halston comes close to stopping the show with an entrance wearing a hat best described as an exotic bird preparing for take-off. She has the best lines and literally stops the show with her mime singing to a recording of “Lullaby of Broadway.” Don’t ask.
I’m not sure I understood a word that came out of the otherwise marvelous Veanne Cox’s mouth as the perpetually in-mourning Russian Princess Dragomiroff, but no matter. And while a wonderful Alexandra Silber makes her entrance ostentatiously gowned in white furs and feathers, she soon becomes a major player/suspect as the suspiciously helpful Hungarian Countess Andrenyi.
Other stand-outs include Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Michel, the shadily accommodating conductor; Samantha Steinmetz as Greta Ohlsson, the simply off-the-wall Swedish nurse cum missionary; Juha Sorola as the inscrutably shifty Hector MacQueen; Evan Zes as Poirot’s friend Monsieur Bouc, who runs the train company; and Max Von Essen, who plays the surprisingly understandable Scottish Army Colonel Arbuthnot and also — oops, that’s telling too much.
“Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express” is all about the acting, the over-acting and the unapologetic playfulness inherent in Christie’s possibly most famous mystery next to “The Mousetrap,” produced only last season at McCarter. All of the plot’s diversions and digressions have been adroitly addressed by director Mann — as is our eagerness to let mirth as well as murder will out.
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through April 2. $25 to $93.90. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.