Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
October 19, 2012
Phileas Fogg lives his life with clockwork precision. In fact, when we first meet him, we see his strictly regimented, punctilious daily schedule — three times. That’s the opening of Laura Eason’s 2008 adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” And that orderly austerity is pretty much the watchword of her stage version of the beloved 1873 novel.
The whirlwind adventure, wherein the eccentric, enigmatic Englishman gambles his fortune on a bet from his wealthy, whist-club cronies: that he can’t circle the earth in less than three months. The possibility had just become plausible in the 1870s, with completion of a globe-shrinking trifecta: the Suez Canal, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway and the first American transcontinental trains.
So Fogg grabs his new valet, the peripatetic Frenchman, Passepartout , and they’re off. Most of the traveling is conveyed via train whistles and foghorns. The first act, like the opening scenes, feels rigid and unvarying. Not until the Indian part of the journey, when the voyagers encounter the delightful Mrs. Aouda and ride an imaginatively conceived elephant, does the pace and inherent excitement of the expedition take flight.
The ponderous original music, by Kevin O’Donnell, doesn’t help to ratchet up the energy. But suddenly, in the second act, we get battles, a storm at sea, and a whimsical ice-sledge ride in falling snow. And all of a sudden, the mega-talented cast starts singing, beautifully. Where was all that fun in the first act?
Once the romantic tension between the warm Indian widow and the austere, stoic Brit takes hold, we’re as smitten as Fogg . There’s a mustache-twirling villain, in the form of Fix, a buffoonish Scotland Yard detective, who’s convinced that Fogg is the Bank of England robber on the run.
Countless complications and delays ensue, many thanks to the ever-curious and credulous Passepartout . These obstacles are often dispatched in true English imperialist style: problems melt away with a quick infusion of cash.
But this is no social treatise; it’s a race against the clock, in story and execution. Fortunately, director Robert Smyth has a splendid ensemble at his disposal, an impressively malleable cast of eight who create dozens of characters, in Jeanne Reith’s superb, culture-crossing costumes. The accents change as swiftly as the clothes, and that’s one of the production’s greatest delights – though Bryan Barbarin’s endearing Passepartout could use additional Frenchifying .
Lance Arthur Smith is perfectly persnickety as Fogg ; Jon Lorenz is a hoot as the misguided meddler, Fix; Kaja Amado Dunn is irresistible as Mrs. Aouda , and the rest are simply peerless.
The charming design hews close to the original Chicago production directed by playwright Eason — and subsequent stagings as well, but Lamb’s Players Theatre does boast the West coast premiere. It won’t rock your world, but it should entertain you for an evening.
“Around the World in 80 Days” runs through November 18 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
©2012 PAT LAUNER