July 26, 2008

"Around the World in 80 Days" is a Fun Trip

Silliness is often an underrated virtue. I know because I’m usually one of the people turning up her nose at it. But sometimes all you want out of a night at the theater is just a little fun. Particularly on a soft summer evening. Or after a day full of hard news about rising gas prices, falling home values and a wobbly stock market. That may explain why laugh fests like Boeing-Boeing and The 39 Steps are doing well right now. And it’s a good part of the reason that my pal Bill and I decided to take in Around the World in 80 Days at the Irish Repertory Theatre, which is apparently taking a summer break from Irish-themed shows.

The trend of turning movies into plays and musicals has now become so established that a subgenre has popped up: three dimensional shadow plays that attempt to recreate an entire film with just a handful of actors playing all the parts and aided by only the simplest props. The shadow version of the old Alfred Hitchcock thriller The 39 Steps didn’t work for me but it tickled enough other people that the Roundabout moved it from a limited run at the American Airlines Theatre to an unlimited one at the Cort last spring.

Staging Around the World in 80 Days, the classic Jules Verne adventure story that was made into a motion picture spectacular back in 1956, is even a bigger challenge. The movie, produced by Elizabeth Taylor’s then-husband Mike Todd, cost nearly $6 million, ran for almost three hours, was filmed on 140 locations in six different countries, and won five Oscars including Best Movie. It also boasted 40 co-stars including David Niven as the wealthy 19th century adventurer Phileas Fogg who wagers his fortune that he can circumnavigate the globe in less than three months, the Mexican comic actor Cantinflas as his indomitable French manservant Passepartout, Shirley McLaine as Aouda, a young Indian princess they rescue from the sacrificial flames of a forced Sati, and surprise cameos from such big-time names as Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, John Gielgud, Buster Keaton, and Frank Sinatra.

The Irish Rep production has just five actors and two onstage Foley artists who create both the show’s music and its important sounds effects, from raging storms to moving trains. Even by the stripped-down standards of this new genre of mini parodies, it’s a puny production. But it offers some hearty laughs, particularly in the second act. And despite my high bar for low comedy, I had a good time and enjoyed it more than I did The 39 Steps.

Around the World in 80 Days isn’t as slick as its Broadway cousin but that may be what appealed to me. Instead of showing off how clever they are, the 80 Days cast members embrace the silliness of the whole endeavor and seem to have such fun doing so that their delight becomes infectious. Evan Zes, one of those anything-for-a-laugh actors who goes right to the edge of hokeyness, jumps off and then claws his way back into your good graces, shines in the flamboyant role of Passepartout. But Jay Russell, juggling 16 roles, and John Keating, playing at least eight, are just as hilariously terrific.

Daniel Stewart and Lauren Elise McCourt hold their own in the less flashy roles of Fogg and Aouda. Mark Brown’s script joyfully patches together all kinds of jokes from sight gags to broad but gentle ethnic humor. The direction by Michael Evan Haney, associate artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse, is inventive and sometimes just plain goofy. People in the audience at the performance Bill and I attended, which included Joanne Woodward, whooped with delight at some of the antics.

There’s no hot air balloon, as there famously was in the movie, but if you get a chance to see Around the World in 80 Days before its run ends on Sept. 7, keep an eye out for the elephant. It’s simultaneously silly and, in a summertime kind of way, sublime. Just like the show.


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Mark said...

I'm glad you had a good time. I'd like to invite you to come out and see my first musical, China - The Whole Enchilada. It's playing at the Fringe Festival.