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Julie Halston and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh in the McCarter Theatre production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

Man of Mystery: You could say Ken Ludwig has a thing about mysteries. After all, last fall his play The Game’s Afoot — centering on a murder at the castle-like Connecticut home of Sherlock Holmes actor William Gillette — played the Ivoryton Playhouse. This spring he returns to Holmesian turf with Baskerville at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. But next up is his stage adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which runs Feb. 15-March 18 at Hartford Stage. It’s the McCarter Theatre production from Princeton, New Jersey.

I asked the prolific Ludwig what drew him to the genre, especially after his string of popular comedies including Lend Me a Tenor.

“People love mysteries and they never go out of style,” he says, adding that Holmes and Watson are among literature’s most famous characters. “But they’re really, really hard to write and they need to be devilishly clever.”

Ludwig says the Agatha Christie estate, looking to bring more of the author’s literary work to stage, film and television, approached him for a theater adaptation of one of her mysteries. Ludwig was eager to do Murder on the Orient Express — even if there was a major motion picture remake of that title that came out last year.

“It’s glamorous, it’s romantic and just the title itself is magic,” he says. “It is a bigger play than I usually write for the stage, but I’ve been able to cut the number of suspects down.”

He says, in a contemporary world seemingly out of control, the solving of mysteries is a kind of safe escape for audiences. “It may be a nice outlet for us now, as many of us are upset about the world, to escape out of our real-world problems for a couple of hours and then see justice done. And it’s the sense of justice — versus the rule of law — that is at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express.”

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The cast of Manual Cinema in Ada/Ava.

The Shadows Know

I first ran across Manual Cinema’s sui generis work last August at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was a piece of theatrical wonder, with its shadow puppetry combined with live music and performance, mixed with cinematic sweep.

The Chicago-based group will demonstrate its uncommon, expressionistic and slightly goth art form when it presents Ada/Ava at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts on Feb. 23.

But it’s not only in the telling but in the watching of how the art is being made that makes the storytelling so fascinating.

“We wanted to give the audience freedom of choice where to look,” says one of the five artistic directors of the company, Drew Dir. “It can either watch the big screen at the center of the stage or look at how the work is made by all of us below the screen, as we create all the images, sound and music. Going to a Manual Cinema show is like entering a dream a little bit — but we also let the audience in on the magic.”

The technique of shadows and silhouette also allows the team to treat the storytelling like it was cinema, changing locations, perspective and styles in a more imaginative way,” says Dir, who admits that he was the kid who ran the overhead projector in school.

“And because we deal with silhouettes and we don’t generally use language, there’s a universality that stirs audiences. There’s just something about shadows. It’s like being in a dream.”

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Deborah Cox and Judson Mills in The Bodyguard.

Guarded Behavior

What does it take to be a romantic leading man on stage?

“Chemistry,” says Judson Mills, who plays the male lead in the touring musical The Bodyguard, based on the 1992 film starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner and playing at the Bushnell Feb. 20-25.

He might even add “luck,” as he confides that when he was cast in the show he didn’t know — or even audition with — his eventual co-star, Deborah Cox. She takes on the Whitney Houston role of the pop diva in need of protection. He, naturally, plays the oh-so-cool role portrayed by Costner. But fortune smiled, he says, and he and Cox have developed a special rapport on stage.

The musical stage is not his normal turf, having spent most of his career in film and television, including a continual role on TV’s Walker, Texas Ranger. But he points out that he began his acting career on stage, so he knows how to hold the spotlight.

And a note? Well, his character is only featured in one musical number, he says, which — like the film — is set in a karaoke bar. The big songs in the show — including I Wanna Dance With Somebody, The Greatest Love of All and I Will Always Love You — are left to Cox’s strong pipes.

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Director Sean Thompson, left, and cast members Quint Bishop, right, and Kayla Adams perform in The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare at The Owen Theatre.

Best Shows of the Year

What shows captured my imagination, if not my heart, in 2017? I went to scores of plays and musicals last year and finding my favorites is always a challenge in this theater-rich state. With its geographical stretch, it’s impossible to see everything on all of Connecticut’s professional stages, but these lists are always a personal expression, anyway.

It was an especially great year for musical productions. (Four of the 10 were tuners.) There was some terrific ensemble work, too, in shows such as The Wolves, Next to Normal, Small Mouth Sounds and Mary Jane. And there were some brilliant performances, as always, some of which transcended their material, others that enhanced it. They included Elizabeth Stahlmann in Grounded at the Westport Country Playhouse; Ashlie Atkinson in Imogen Says Nothing at Yale Rep; Mia Dillon in Seder at Hartford Stage; Reg Rogers in An Enemy of the People at Yale Rep and Ben Edelman in The Chosen at Long Wharf Theatre.

But when it came time to pick just 10 “best” nights at the theater, this is the list I finally made, in order of production.

A Comedy of Errors (Hartford Stage)

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (Hartford Stage)

MaryJane (Yale Repertory Theatre)

1776 (Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series)

Miss Julie (Yale Summer Cabaret)

Oklahoma! (Goodspeed Opera House)

Small Mouth Sounds (Long Wharf Theatre)

Rags (Goodspeed Opera House)

Next to Normal (TheaterWorks)

The Wolves (TheaterWorks)

Now, what were your favorite shows?


This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. 

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