Around the World in 80 Days follows the adventures of Phileas Fogg and his servant Passepartout as they traverse the globe in 1899 to try to win a bet that the trip can be done in 80 days or less. Along the way, they are pursued by a slightly dimwitted female British inspector who falsely believes Fogg has robbed the Bank of England. The two also cross oceans via balloons, help an Indian princess escape from a forced marriage, and rescue the inspector from cowboy bandits along the way.
The book by Mr. McDonough is aptly whimsical, humorous, and kind-hearted, and contains adventure, romance, and a bit of historical perspective. Though there are plot holes and unlikely scientific realities within the storytelling, it really doesn't distract much from the book's effectiveness. The characters are well rounded, and the message of progress and hope are maintained from beginning to end. The score by David Kisor contains some of his most tuneful melodies to date. The lyrics are sufficient throughout, though they don't appear to be as strong as his music upon initial exposure. The best songs are "Take Me Around The World" (the "I want" song for Phileas), the intoxicating "Hong Kong," "Strong Wind, Strong Women," the beautifully plaintive "A Gentleman," and "Here and Now," a glorious duet for Fogg and Aouda. As accomplished as the book and score are, one wishes there were more moments that energize or raise the collective spirit of the audience. There aren't any real "lows" in this show, but the "highs" should be higher.
As Phileas Fogg, Cincinnati theater vet Ken Early puts his strong singing voice to wonderful use, is elegant in his delivery of the role's very formal dialogue, and skillfully captures the very gentlemanly nature of the character. ETC regular Michael G. Bath earns lots of laughs (as usual) in executing many silly antics as Passepartout. Torie Wiggins is endearing and regal as Aouda, the Indian princess, and provides great vocals as well. Annie Fitzpatrick does well with the somewhat underwritten role of Inspector Fix, and Deb G. Girdler uses her unique talents splendidly throughout. There is a lot of talent on stage, as evidenced by the performances of the 17 cast members.
Director D. Lynn Meyers successfully incorporates a time motif throughout the piece through props, transition scene sounds of a clock ticking, and even in the choreography. There is effective use of puppets and a perfect tone and pace for the show. Oddly, the fourth wall is broken several times in act two with the actors acknowledging the theatergoers for some audience participation. It's generally unobtrusive, but without any prior similar actions earlier in the show, it does feel out of place. The dances by Dee Anne Bryll are fun and suitable for the material, and she uses the sometimes cramped quarters of the ETC stage well.
Brian Mehring's lighting effectively showcases his beautiful set design, which features a sepia tone world map on five staggered panels. Various gears, again adding to the clock motif, also surround the stage and there is some inventive use of two mobile staircases as well. The costumes by Mary Eagan Murphy are handsome and capture the Victorian era accurately.
December always offers a lot of theater options for Cincinnati audiences, and ETC has made it a tradition to present a musical each year which appeals to young and old. Around the World in 80 Days is an accomplished, amiable and entertaining piece which is well performed, directed, and designed. The show continues through January 4, 2014, at the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. For tickets, please visit www.ensemblecincinnati.org or call (513) 421-3555.