As much as Lou Grant hated spunk, I hate whimsy. It’s a dastardly thing to capture, and most of the time things meant to be whimsical usually make me want to fall on a wee little knife.
That said, Round House Theatre’s Around the World in 80 Days is a capricious charmer, with director Nick Olcott distilling the right amount of Edwardian-era fancy into the production without glopping things up with preciousness.
Much in the manner of the enormously entertaining Broadway show The 39 Steps, this staging features a small cast of five actors playing 39 characters and executing whiz-bang costume changes and assuming a United Nations roster of accents. The only actor who remains in character throughout is Phileas Fogg (the elegant Mitchell Hébert), a dapper and superbly unruffled gent whose waistcoat remains unwrinkled whether in a typhoon or catapulting a train over a broken railway bridge.
Mark Brown’s daintily tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the Jules Verne classic captures the flavor of Fogg’s madcap dash around the globe without stopping at every port. In 1872, the wealthy Fogg bets a bevy of bewhiskered men at his private club that he can circle the world in just 80 days. “It is simply a matter of mathematics,” he says before he and his valet (Sasha Olinick, sporting a fetching French accent and gamely wearing more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins) set off by rail, steamer, elephant, and shoe leather across India, Asia and America.
Of course, railway timetables and ship schedules are thrown to the wind when Fogg and his valet thwart a human sacrifice and rescue a beguiling Indian princess (Tuyet Thi Pham), encounter opium dens and unscrupulous tradesmen, and fend off an attack by Apache Indians while traversing the Great Plains. To up the ante, the pair is tailed at every turn by a bumbling Scotland Yard detective (Ethan Bowen), who believes Fogg to be a gentleman bank robber.
For all his ingenuity and unflappable calm, Fogg does not anticipate how broadening travel can be, as he finds himself taking a journey of the heart in his gently burgeoning romance with the princess. By the end, you find yourself admiring Fogg’s derring-do, as well as his old-world decency and sense of responsibility.
What you won’t find in this production is a hot-air balloon or a gaggle of special effects. A simple turntable whisks the actors from one locale to the next and other than a nifty transformation of a ship’s wheel into a mighty elephant, the audience must rely on their imaginations and the formidable talents of the actors to take the world tour.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more talented and inventive group, starting with James Konicek seamlessly whipping through 18 different characters and accompanying accents ranging from Brooklyn-ese to Cockney and everything in-between. He is a walking visual pun the way he throws off facial hair and slaps on wigs to become the next comic character (some of which are shamefully, perhaps anachronistically, stereotypical). Mr. Konicek and Mr. Bowen are also adept with the home-made sound effects, lending a Monty Python-esque lunacy to the proceedings. Mr. Bowen’s poker-faced visage is perfect for the silent-movie vaudeville needed for 80 Days and his deadpan reactions to some of the narrative—when falling snow is required, for example—are priceless.
Mr. Olinick plays the loyal valet with Gallic aplomb, scurrying off from time to time to play a patchwork of roles. Miss Pham mostly sticks to the Indian princess, and her regal composure and delicate succumbing to Fogg create a lovely portrait of Victorian sensibility.
While the cast seems incapable of running out of energy or bright ideas, 80 Days’ stately and genteel pace does drag after awhile and every episode seems to run by the same clockwork. You also wonder about the wisdom of a two and a half-hour running time for what is supposed to be a family show.
The old-timey charms of this production prevail, making it a passport into a world gone by when travel took its own sweet time and around every corner was the possibility for adventure or romance.
Around the World in 80 Days – TOP PICK!
By Mark Brown
From the novel by Jules Verne
Directed by Nick Olcott
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Around the World in 80 Days plays thru May 30, 2010.
DCTS review – TOP PICK!