Two recent Tampa Bay stage productions mark a triumphant return to a sense of normalcy

Two very different evenings of theatre, both superb, will force audiences to reflect on the complicated nature of justice

click to enlarge Murder on the Orient Express - PHOTO VIA STAGEWORKS
Photo via Stageworks
Murder on the Orient Express
As we desperately finally escape COVID and fend off its variations, two smashing productions opened on stage last weekend; one on each side of the Bay. Both plays celebrate a famous figure—one a fictional detective with epic psychological insights; the other, a chanteuse with the most unique and identifiable voice of the 20th century. I’m speaking, of course, of the transcendent Billie Holiday and that most eccentric OCD character from the mind of Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot.

As a lapsed director/designer I can tell you firsthand that the road to implementing a clear vision for a production is fraught with peril. The alchemy necessary to turn an exciting concept into a coherent evening often eludes even the most celebrated of theatre artists. I’m happy to report that this last opening weekend birthed two fabulous successes. The directorial vision of both Stageworks’ Murder on the Orient Express and freeFall’s Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill are not only clearly realized, but they mark a triumphant return to a sense of normalcy. Although I must mention that I was one of the rare mask wearers in Tampa, while the entire audience in St. Pete looked like a surgeon’s convention.

At Stageworks, set designer Gabrielle Lutz conjures the Art Deco opulence of the Orient Express with a multi-level unit set reminiscent of an old vaudeville house. The upper level features a trio of trapezoidal openings filled with giant golden curtains that display symmetrical leaf veining. The lower level sports an elegant white linen table flanked by mirror image stairs and over-stuffed Deco chairs. When combined with Celeste N. Silsby Mannerud’s lighting and Frank Chavez’s costumes, you’re completely transported.

Director Clareann Despain is in unerring control of her marvelous ensemble and evocative sound as she weaves together the melodramatic characters and music that that harken back to the days of The Thin Man. Playwright Ken Ludwig is a well-known farceur (Lend Me a Tenor) and he’s spun the cavalcade of Christie’s characters into a compelling evening laced with humor and surprise.

Matthew McGee has long been noted for his command of comedy over the years with many memorable performances on both sides of the Bay in concerts, plays and musicals. But he’s found new colors in his nuanced portrayal of the inimitable Hercule Poirot . . . who is Belgian, not French. He teams up with the delightfully versatile T.R. Butler as Monsieur Bouc, who is like a clueless Watson to his knowing Holmes. The entire multi-accented ensemble is in splendid form (Aaron Castle, Donna DeLonay, Laura Fleming, Jayrn McCann, Brian Shea, and Katrina Stevenson).

The marvelous Nicole Jeannine Smith shows once again that she’s one of of the region’s most grounded and reliable performers channeling Garbo as the Hungarian Countess who is more complicated than she first seems, and Susan Haldeman’s Mrs. Hubbard demonstrates pipes with panache that echo Ethel Merman. And, Agatha Christie, of course, keeps us guessing until the surprise denouement as every character has both motive and alibi, until the inimitable Poirot is able to unravel just who committed the crime and pronounce how to mete out justice.

Meanwhile, over St. Pete way, freeFall Theatre has imported a splendid production from Los Angeles’s Ebony Repertory Theatre. Unlike the stylization of the Orient Express, director Wren T. Brown’s production places the audience in 1959 seedy Philadelphia with Lady Day inside Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

I didn’t see Audra McDonald’s TONY winning performance, but I have screened video clips. McDonald’s choice is carefully to impersonate Holiday’s unique, idiosyncratic style and her strapless white gown is trimmed with bling. Here, the formidable Karole Foreman only hints at the phrasing and the little vocal catches, but instead embodies the soul of a troubled genius just four months prior to her untimely death. Costume designer Kim DeShazo has outfitted her in a ruffled white silk gown without embellishments. For me, both choices are improvements as they don’t distract from the storytelling. Ms. Foreman’s dozen plus song stylings are superb, especially as accompanied by the gifted Damon Carter as Jimmy Powers, whose baby grand sings in the smoothest tones imaginable. What’s particularly wonderful is the intimacy of freeFall’s three quarter thrust configuration which director Wren uses to great effect with direct address to the rapt crowd. The ability to see into Ms. Foreman’s eyes as Ms. Holiday implodes is almost cinematic in detail. You feel Gilbert Millstein’s album note that “the worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her.” It’s a touching reminder that despite the obvious progress that we’ve made as a nation, issues of drug addiction are still often criminalized instead of being addressed as a public health issue.

Two very different evenings of theatre, both superb, will force audiences to reflect on the complicated nature of justice. The sad coincidence is that generations after the melodrama of the former and the prejudice of the latter, that the Southern senators embarrassing themselves before Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson last week were more stereotypical than Agatha Christie’s fictional characters.

I usually leave politics to Jeffery C. Billman’s Informed Dissent, but since Hamlet’s advice to the players is to “hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature,” my mind can’t help but reflect on these sad parallels. So please buy your tickets to both shows NOW, and go forth into our world fighting against racism and for equal justice. These elusive goals are now, and forever, the profound lessons of our nation’s founding documents.