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Review - Around The World In 80 Days

The last time Mark Brown's charming and witty stage adaptation of Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days played Off-Broadway, it was in a pocket-sized production highlighted by a pair of on-stage Foley artists providing live sound effects. But in the eye-popping new Off-Broadway production, director/designer Rachel Klein is working with considerably larger pockets.

While the play remains one of those affairs where a small company tells an epic tale through creative staging and lots of multiple casting, what was once a rather dreary black box theatre on West 45th Street has been considerably made-over for this wacky steampunk-inspired production. Robert Andrew Kovach's versatile bi-level Industrial Age set extends all the way to the back of the audience, as do the surround-sound effects designed by Sean Hagerty. When the actors react to an oncoming storm, audience members can actually feel their seats shaking a bit. (Those newly reupholstered seats, by the way, formerly resided at Broadway's Golden Theatre.) An enormous clock looming above the proceedings serves as a screen for Kate Freer's projections, which keep us posted on the adventure's progress.

Elegant work by lighting designer Ben Kate and Klein with the costumes complete the sumptuous visuals that enhance, rather than overwhelm, the spirited performances. Sticking to the details of Verne's 1873 novel, the story concerns wealthy Londoner Phileas Fogg, a stiff-jawed bloke who desires a life of such exacting mathematical consistency that he fires his valet for accidentally delivering his shaving water at 84 degrees instead of the usual 86. Bryce Ryness, the only cast member with a single role, plays him with grandly comically straight-faced heroics.

"The unforeseen does not exist," Fogg insists as he wagers his fellow club members 20,000 pounds that he can circumnavigate the globe by rail and steamer in 80 days. With his newly-hired gentleman's gentleman, Passepartout, by his side (John Gregorio plays the role with frustrated devotion and a crazy French accent.), Fogg's travels take him through India, China and the American plains, encountering a typhoon, a Comanche attack and some uncooperative train and boat schedules along the way.

On his tail is Detective Fix of Scotland Yard, played with crafty determination by Stephen Guarino, who suspects the traveler of being a bank robber, but can only arrest him with a proper warrant and while on British soil; thus he must help the suspect achieve his goal in order to be able to stop him.

Shirine Babb plays it straight in her main role as Auoda, an Indian woman who Fogg rescues from being sacrificed and accompanies him back to London, becoming a love interest who brings out the slightest traces of vulnerability he's willing to release. Jimmy Ray Bennett has the most chameleonesque assignment, and is terrifically funny playing 16 characters, including a proper Brit, a crusty sea captain, a nasty cowpoke and an overly-efficient clerk.

While the two-act adventure does run short of steam now and then, Klein's ever-clever staging barrels through the rough patches on its way to a sock-o finish. A fun evening for kids and adults alike, Around The World In 80 Days is a rollicking voyage.

Photos by Michael Blase: Top: Bryce Ryness; Bottom: Stephen Guarino and John Gregorio.

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From This Author Michael Dale