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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Around the World in 80 Days
Arizona Theatre Company

Also see Gil's review of Into the Woods


Yolanda London, Bob Sorenson, Mark Anders, Kyle Sorrell and Jon Gentry
Based on Jules Verne's classic novel, Mark Brown's theatrical adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is a combination of suspense, adventure, comedy and romance. Using only five actors to portray over thirty characters, Brown has crafted a play with many comical moments set amongst the adventure that add laughs from the well-written humorous dialogue as well as the fun in seeing how quickly the actors become the many characters they play. Having been produced around the world since its premiere in 1991 at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the play is receiving a serviceable production from the Arizona Theatre Company with a more than capable cast and fairly impressive creative elements.

Verne's novel, while extremely elaborate, actually has a fairly simple plot. In 1872 London and with the expansion of rail lines across Asia, wealthy Phileas Fogg states that it is now possible to travel around the world in just eighty days. He wagers his life savings of £20,000 when he accepts a bet from members of the upper crust Reform Club who don't believe he can succeed in his globe-trotting expedition in such a short time. However, the wager puts his fortune and his life at risk when a police detective, who thinks Fogg is a robber on the run, follows him on his journey, putting as many obstacles in Fogg's way as he can until he has the means to arrest him, which turns the adventure into a completely different one than the determined and relentless Fogg had originally imagined.

Fogg's £20,000 wager is equivalent to just under two million dollars in today's world, so it's easy to feel Fogg's resilience and determination to find alternate routes when necessary in order for him to win his bet. With his trusty and resourceful servant Passepartout at his side and traveling by a combination of trains and ships, Fogg's adventure takes him, and the audience, from London to Egypt, India, Hong Kong, Japan, California and New York before finally making it back to London.

Brown has written a play that is fairly faithful to the novel, but with only five actors and the difficulty of clearly depicting the elaborate adventures Fogg encounters in a stage production, the play often resorts to narration instead of dramatic action to let the audience know what Fogg and his traveling companions are up to. While I appreciated the various character's narration of the times, dates and places where Fogg currently is on his voyage, and how many hours he is ahead or behind schedule at that time, the play gets bogged down a bit by the continual use of having the actors "tell" us what happened to Fogg on his journeys instead of "showing" us. With the steady stream of actors changing costumes, wigs, accents and even genders to portray the dozens of characters, the play at many times resembles another play with a small cast who play multiple roles, The 39 Steps. Though, unlike that play, 80 Days doesn't have as many laughs or hilarious situations. Fortunately, what Brown does achieve after a somewhat slow and uneventful first act, is a second act that has several action packed sequences following in succession, including a monsoon at sea, a speeding train facing a bridge about to collapse, and a sled ride over the icy and snowy train tracks. The second act also has a huge amount of charm and many touching moments that reflect upon Fogg's relationships with Passepartout and with the mysterious lady, Aouda, they meet on their journey.

Director David P. Saar has assembled a capable cast, including Mark Anders as Phileas Fogg, Jon Gentry as Passepartout, and Yolanda London as Aouda, with Bob Sorenson as the Detective pursuing Fogg, and Kyle Sorrell playing over a dozen supporting characters. Anders perfectly plays Fogg as the epitome of the proper English gentlemen, one who states "a true Englishman never jokes" and that he is "constant and reliable" just like the mathematics he studies. However, once Aouda enters Fogg's life, Anders shows the changes in Fogg, with the looks he gives her and the care and attention he directs her way, and we can see there is a delicate side to this stiff man, a man who once fired a servant for delivering his shaving water at two degrees below the desired temperature. Passepartout gets most of the laughs in the play, and Gentry easily delivers them through a combination of rubber-faced looks, expressive eyebrows, and a thick French accent. He also easily portrays the joy and exuberance in Passepartout's job serving Fogg and the fierce dedication he has to him. London is appropriately reserved as Aouda, and she brings an air of majesty and stillness to the adventures unfolding around her. But she also lets us see how Aouda actually relishes these new experiences and, like Anders' Fogg, London makes us easily believe the budding relationship between the two.

Sorenson is having a ball as Detective Fix, who can't seem to trap Fogg when he wants to. He has some nice comical moments with Gentry as Passepartout, and also easily portrays a few other characters in the play. Sorrell plays the most parts and, with a constant parade of costumes, wigs, mustaches and accents, manages to make even the smallest role distinctive.

Saar's direction is effective, though he can't seem to do much with the unfortunate pacing lags in Brown's act one script. Still, he manages to draw effective characters from all of his actors and provides a few comical moments, some stirring action sequences, and a large amount of charm in act two. Creative elements are nicely done with Carey Wong's two-tiered set including a revolving staircase and a large world map that appears above several times throughout the show. While creative, the set is actually vastly underused, with only one main scene playing out on the upper playing area. The design also includes a large set piece upstage center that, while it moves back and forth a few times, is also really only used for one scene and its presence throughout the show blocks a large part of the images projected on the back scrim. Fortunately Wong also provides a moving set piece that is extremely effective in portraying the typhoon sequence and the train track traveling sailing device. David Lee Cuthbert's lighting design is mostly clean and bright, with many of the scenes taking place during the day, though the night time rescue of Aouda is nicely lit in moody and exotic hues. He also provides a nice lighting effect to theatrically resemble a moving train. The projections, by Gregory W. Towle, are effective in how they display the various exotic locations of the journey and resemble sepia toned postcards along with a superb giant clock projection that fills the entire back. Karen Ledger's costumes are abundant, elaborate and colorful, and considerably help the actors to quickly assume the many characters they play. Aouda's lush and colorful dresses are especially well done.

So while Brown's adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is a little lacking on the "adventure" aspect due to the small cast and the inability to clearly portray the many action packed sequences from Verne's novel, there is a large amount of charm and several effective and touching moments toward the end. The Arizona Theatre Company production is good, but not great, with a talented cast, serviceable direction and, with the exception of an elaborate set design that is somewhat underused, nicely done creative elements. If audiences can make it through the somewhat plodding first act they will be treated to a second act that is vastly superior and an ending that is touching and charming, delivered by a cast that is having a grand time in bringing Verne's classic story to stage.

Around the World in 80 Days at Arizona Theatre Company runs through April 13th at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 —6995.

Written by Mark Brown
Director: David P. Saar
Set Designer: Carey Wong
Costume Designer: Karen Ledger
Lighting Designer: David Lee Cuthbert
Sound Designer: Brian Jerome Peterson
Projections Designer: Gregory W. Towle
Composer: Roberta Carlson
Resident Lighting Designer: T. Greg Squires
Assistant Scenic Designer: Nick Passafiume
Stage Manager: Timothy Toothman
Assistant Stage Manager: Glenn Bruner
Assistant to the Stage Manager: Emma Devore

Cast:
Phileas Fogg: Mark Anders
Passepartout / John Sullivan: Jon Gentry
James Forster / Priest / Aouda: Yolanda London
Gauthier Ralph / British Consul / Director of Police / Priest / Sir Francis / Judge Obadiah / Chinese Broker / Shif Clerk / Bunsby / Proctor / Engineer / Mudge / Clerk / Captain Speedy / Ship Engineer / Train Clerk: Kyle Sorrell
Andrew Stuart / Detective Fix / Priest / Conductor / Elephant Owner / Young Parsi / Oysterpuff / Reverend Wilson's Servant: Bob Sorenson


Photo: Tim Fuller / Arizona Theatre Company

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix


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