Thursday, May 24, 2018
Stage

Review: Whimsical romp — with an elephant! — 'Around the World in 80 Days'

Come along, ol' chums, on an irresistible journey — an expedition designed to delight you, a peregrination through various human vanities and foibles, and a whizzing ride of whimsy — Around the World in 80 Days.

American Stage's rollicking production of Mark Brown's adaptation of Jules Verne's famous novel will tickle you the way Monty Python did in its heyday. It is full of dry humor and double-takes, rubbery faces and razor-sharp repartee.

And there's an elephant on stage!

All this is accomplished — the journey and the stage production — with a fair amount of theatrical derring-do. Jungles must be traversed, damsels must be rescued, typhoons and American Indians must be fought. Five actors play a total of 31 characters, often switching costumes in what seems like the blink of an eye. Then there are the technical requirements of turning a London drawing room into a series of ships, trains, wharves and bazaars as the travelers make their way eastward.

The ingenious set designed by Jerid Fox includes a large 19th-century clock of the kind once seen in train stations, which can be turned into projected images of scenery and a helpful map to chart the party's progress. As director/producing artistic director Todd Olson told the audience beforehand, this play might be the most complex technical production the company has done during his 11 seasons with the company.

"We have 280 sound cues, 200 light cues, 45 film cues, four moving lights, 40 costumes and four fog machines," he said. All are programed by computer.

The ensemble cast, however, is the core of the show. In the comic parts, Matthew McGee, Brian Shea and Brad DePlanche have impeccable timing and a plethora of mannerisms. McGee alone plays 16 of the parts, including narrator, British soldier, colonial judge, sea captain, Chinese broker, a series of clerks and officials, and a hilarious parody of an American cowboy who doesn't know the difference between London and France and who believes violence is the solution to any problem. (Don't worry; the ridiculous pretensions of Victorian Englishmen get a good bit of skewering, too.) McGee is such a welcome presence on stage that you can't wait to see in what costume he'll turn up next.

Shea is the only actor who plays just one part, that of the bumbling but loyal French manservant, whose running joke about his "time-piece" is both funny and foreshadowing. DePlanche gets the pompous roles, including a caricature of an overstuffed British gentleman and the clueless but committed Scotland Yard detective. He owns the elephant too.

After a few quick trouser roles, Jonelle M. Meyer plays the Parsi maiden Aouda, whose rescue from a burning funeral pyre introduces the unpredictable prospect of romance into what had been an all-male adventure.

Then there is the indefatigable Phileas Fogg, played by Brian Webb Russell. He's the straight man, often exasperated by the idiocies that surround him. He is so sure of his calculations and ability to handle any contingency that he doesn't hesitate to wager his fortune that he can circumnavigate the globe within this unprecedented time frame. He is also the dramatic backbone of the play, as he transforms from a man who is terse, exacting and incurious, into someone noble, generous, even playful; and, finally, in love. Russell brings an attractive assurance to the role.

And that elephant deserves another mention. She is actually an elaborate and colorful puppet at the head of a wagon, also designed by Fox. She is steady enough that one can even serve tea while riding her. "Have you any clotted cream?" Sir Francis Cromarty asks the manservant Passepartout.

Perhaps not, but this exuberant play has everything else.

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