BWW Reviews: Hitchcock Meets Hilarious in THE 39 STEPS at the Norris Center

By: Jan. 26, 2014

The Tony award-winning Broadway stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's famous film, THE 39 STEPS, is being presented as a slapstick romp through film noir at the Norris Center for the Performing Arts for nine performances, January 24 - February 9, directed with skillful comedic insight by Ken Parks. Combining a suspenseful spy thriller with uproarious comedy, the fast-paced whodunit is filled with action, romance and inventive staging.

A wildly entertaining experience, the comedic caper follows the incredible adventures of the handsome hero Richard Hannay, complete with British stiff-upper-lip and pencil moustache, as he encounters murderers, double-crossing secret agents, and of course, devastatingly beautiful women. When Hannay is accused of a murder he didn't commit, he flees from the authorities and encounters a string of hair-raising situations and an unlikely love connection. The play is full of allusions to other Hitchcock films, including "Rear Window," "Strangers on a Train," "Psycho," and North by Northwest" among others. And even Hitchcock's famous profile hangs over the set, keeping a mindful eye on the proceedings after delivering the curtain speech..

THE 39 STEPS features a cast of four actors who breathlessly and hilariously portray more than 120 colorful characters inhabiting the action-packed world of Hitchcock's 1935 film thriller. Every famous scene (including each train chase and plane crash) is reenacted with unsurpassed theatrical ingenuity and split second quick changes. .Kudos to the dressers and stage crew who must be very vigilant backstage to keep the actors properly attired while making sure set pieces are moved in and out to convey the many different locations. There are several blackouts which seem a bit too long, but given all the changes going on, they are forgivable.

Featured in the cast are Jeffrey Cannata (Richard Hannay), Karen Jean Olds (Annabella/Pamela/Margaret), with Louis Lotorto and Kenny Landmon playing the two Clowns who portray everything from spies to Scottish Innkeepers to murky bogs. The two men have a remarkable ease of movement, allowing them to change characters onstage with the switch of a hat or a coat. At one point, there is a change from an investigator in his trench coast to the old lady Scottish Innkeeper with a split second change behind a piece of scenery. And on the train, the two Clowns morph back and forth from passengers to the conductor and train station newspaper barker. It's an amazing piece of theater, performed brilliantly by Lotorto and Landmon.

I have seen the play before but never done with such a slapstick take on the humor, which works extremely well for the ridiculous nature of the many characters. While somewhat surprising at first to see such utter buffoonery onstage, as the play progressed it just brought a spirit of lightheartedness and spontaneity to the festivities. For instance, when Hannay is directed by Annabella to look out the window at the "agents" standing against a lamppost on the street below, the two Clowns rush in carrying the lamppost and take their places on the totally opposite side of the stage, certainly not where Hannay would see them looking out the window. But the actors make it all work and the audience just shakes their heads and continues to laugh.

Even a phone ringing at the wrong time dos not phrase Hannay (Jeffrey Cannata) who easily goes along with the joke, breaking the fourth wall. Cannata is a joy to watch as he mimics running in place, and especially when from behind a scrim we see his silhouette being chased by airplanes on sticks. And when he and Annabella get tangled up in a fence, get ready to be amazed by the pretzel maneuvers their bodies accomplish together.

Karen Jean Olds perfectly assumes the three different women, Annabella (the German secret agent), Pamela (the English woman on the train who eventually goes on the run with Hannay), and Margaret, the Scottish farmer's wife. With an assist from great costumes designed by Diana Mann, you really will not believe Olds is the only woman playing such totally different characters. A most brilliant acting job, Ms. Olds.

I must say that it was difficult at times to understand what some of the characters were saying, which I am sure was often intentional. But it was a bit distracting not being able to follow their conversations when important details were being presented to keep the story moving. But then I was too busy watching the remarkable array of characters who convinced me that walking through a free-standing door being turned around really was the proper way to enter an imaginary room. I could go on and on about the inventive staging but I want you to enjoy all the surprises as much as I did.

And when Mr. Memory asks for questions from the audience, I hope someone will eventually call one out to him. I am sure the actors will work it into the show without blinking an eye!


Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan and the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
Original concept by Simon Corble & NORBY DIMON

Directed by Ken Parks at The Norris Theatre, located at 27570 Norris Center Drive in Rolling Hills Estates on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, January 24 - February 9, with 8 p.m. shows on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $40, with discounted group sales tickets available. For more information or to purchase tickets visit or call (310) 544-0403.

Recommended for ages 13+

Karen Jean Olds, Louis Lotorto, Jeffrey Cannata, Kenny Landmon