The 39 Steps and South Pacific

The acclaimed 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps was based in part on the John Buchan novel "The Thirty-Nine Steps." The film, a now classic man-on-the-run espionage tale involving more than one plot twist, is in turn the basis for the play The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow. Though the play faithfully follows the Hitchcock film scene-by-scene, it does so with a cast of four actors playing some 100 characters and a number of inserted Hitchockian references, and it expands greatly on the slight humor of the film to become a full-blown comedy farce.

The current City Theatre production utilizes barebones sets, with utilitarian props and costumes frequently and quickly provided by the cast. While the story is an interesting mystery, the production holds great opportunity for admiration—of the creative staging and the versatility and stamina of the cast.

The time is the 1930s and our main character is Canadian Richard Hannay, a somewhat stuffy but adventurous type. Hannay is played throughout by Tom Beckett (yes, that means it's really three actors playing upwards of 100 characters). Hannay is quickly plunged into a murder and spy plot involving perfect strangers. The subsequent unraveling takes him from London through the Scottish countryside and back to London, escaping from many scrapes and entrapments, and falling in love along the way. Rebecca Harris, Sam Redford and Evan Zes play everyone else—from the love interest to policemen, Scottish farmers, a theatrical mentalist, and many more—and Harris doesn't play all the female roles.

As in any farce, the pace is all important. At times, our cast seems a bit stretched to their limits in completing the quick-changes of character (some demand to be completed within about two seconds) without allowing the pace to lag, but the audience is really rooting for them and is greatly entertained by the fact that they do indeed accomplish all that is demanded of them. Beckett is perfect for the role of Hannay, going through quite a set of challenges while keeping every hair in place. He uses all appropriate physical tricks while making it look easy. It's a shame to lump the other three altogether, but Harris, Redford and Zes do act as a team, and they successfully change accents, costumes, age, gender and attitude a startling number of times. The work of Trey Lyford, credited as Movement Coach, must have been very helpful, as well as Don Wadsworth's work as Dialect Coach. Joe Pino and Andrew David Ostrowski, with sound and lighting respectively, add an appropriate dimension, and the set by Peter Cooke and costumes by Robert C.T. Steele do their job, at some points through innovative design. Tracy Brigden adds another success to her list of directed shows at the City.

The 39 Steps continues through November 7 at City Theatre. For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit

The 2008 Broadway revival of South Pacific was a huge hit. In a stunning production directed by Bartlett Sher at Lincoln Center, it reminded everyone of what a glorious score Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote. The production won many awards and has been touring the country for over a year.

Currently at the Benedum Center, the touring production boasts fine voices in an impressive staging. The classic story (from James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific") of Arkansas native Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) and French plantation owner Emile de Becque (David Pittsinger) plays out on the romantic and hypnotic Pacific Islands setting, where all are residents or stationed through the U.S. Navy. On hand are the ubiquitous comedic secondary characters of Luther Billis (Timothy Gulan) and Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura) and the sub-plot of young lovers Liat (Sumie Maeda) and Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis). The backdrop of the escalation of World War II provides a somber shadow.

Cusack is a charming Nellie with a beautiful voice. Nellie's energy and naivete are well presented, and she wins over the audience very quickly. Pittsinger is a smooth and charming de Becque, and his resounding baritone voice is truly stirring. However, because the pair fall in love musical-theatre-fast, and their relationship survives some pretty serious cultural differences, we must be able to feel the chemistry between the two to believe in their romance—and that is, unfortunately, not present here. Gulan is a proven comedic performer, but his Billis is more grouchy than funny. Kimura is a terrific Bloody Mary; she completely inhabits the unusual character, making us laugh while showing her love for her daughter. Liat is not a well-developed role, but Maeda is as beautiful, innocent and alluring as she should be. Davis brings the right balance of arrogance, grit and tenderness for an appealing Cable.

Just to have the overture and score performed by a full orchestra and talented cast is a rare treat, but this is a terrific looking (sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber) and sounding (Ted Sperling musical Director, musical staging by Christopher Gattelli) production overall.

The South Pacific tour at the Benedum Center through November 7. For more information on the tour, visit

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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