BWW Review: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS at Asolo Repertory Theatre
Under the always-imaginative helm of Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards, the Asolo offers its final production of the season, Around the World in 80 Days. Originally Around the World in 80 Days was a book published in 1892 written by French writer Jules Verne. Verne has been the second most-translated author in the world since 1979, ranking between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare. He shares the title of "Father of Science Fiction" with H. G. Wells, so this writing was quite different than what his science fiction fans were accustomed to reading coming from his pen. If you have not read the book, many of you may remember the 1956 American comic, action-adventure film with beloved English actor David Niven staring as Fogg and Mexican cinema pioneer Cantinflas as Passepartout. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Around the World was a 1946 Broadway musical based on Verne's novel, with a book by Orson Welles and music and lyrics by Cole Porter. The lavishly expensive extravaganza closed after only 75 performances. In this stage version the Asolo presents, Laura Eason takes Verne's classic work and adapts it for the theatre. Eason's reimagination of this jaunt around the world moves Fogg across the globe visiting various ports in a yarn full of three ring circus antics. The adaptation is a recipe for one part clever theatrics and three parts slapstick.
Let's go on a journey...
It's October 1872 in London. A wealthy British man, Phileas Fogg, (Andrew Pollard) despite his wealth, lives alone in a modest lifestyle carried out with mathematical precision. Everything about him is cool, calculated and routine-oriented. He is a member of the Reform Club, a refined gentleman's guild, where he spends most of his days playing and winning card games. Fogg hires a new valet, Frenchman Jean Passepartout (Michael Hugo) to assist with his daily affairs. At the Reform Club, Fogg gets involved in an argument over an article in the newspaper that claims with the opening of a new railway in India, it is possible to travel around the world in 80 days. He accepts a challenge from his fellow club members to complete such a journey within 80 days for a wager of £20,000, about $2 million in today's market, which totaled half of his wealth. With his devoted new valet Passepartout at his side, Fogg leaves London by train on October 2nd at 8:45 p.m. For him to win the wager, he must circumvent the world and return to the club by the same time on December 21st, exactly 80 days later. Fogg takes his remaining fortune in cash to cover expenses during his journey.
And they're off...
London. Italy. Suez. India. Hong Kong. Japan. The American Wild West. New York. Liverpool.
In London, we soon meet Inspector Fix (Dennis Herdman) who believes Fogg has something to do with a robbery at the Bank of England, so he sets off in hot pursuit to follow Fogg's mysterious pilgrimage. At the Suez Canal the travelers board a steamer to Bombay. While in India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue princess Mrs. Aouda (Kirsten Foster) who is to be burned to death in an obsolete funeral custom on her deceased husband's funeral pyre. At first, Fogg attempts take her to her relatives along the way but when that proves to be futile, she accompanies him on his trip and becomes a romantic interest during the remainder of the wacky journey. When the train runs out of track in India, Fogg purchases an elephant to further his trek as time is running out. More setbacks due to an arrest in Calcutta and storm delays reaching Hong Kong further place him behind his precise schedule. While people around him are fretting, he maintains his unruffled demeanor and pushes onward, while Fix follows closely behind. Coming down the stretch they catch a steamer from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Are they too late for the train from California to New York? Will they ever make it back to England on time? Will Fogg lose all of his wealth? And what will happen to Passepartout and Mrs. Aouda? Will Fix have some very interesting news for Fogg? How does it all end? You'll just have to catch your own mode of transportation to the Asolo and have your passport stamped to join in the rollicking fun.
Audience members can expect to participate in this crazy farce the minute they enter the venue. There are pushpin flags of various colors you can choose to place on posted maps of the world to flag where you were born. I was proud to see Ohio was well represented - Go Buckeyes! When the show starts some audience members are called on stage to help with props, such as swaying chairs back and forth to emulate the rise and fall of the ocean. From time to time several cast members gallivant throughout the theater. Passepartout plays a ukulele as he makes conversation with, and sings to the audience. Director Theresa Heskins' cagey staging lends itself well to the slapstick antics she calls on from her very talented cast. Movement Director, Beverley Norris-Edmunds was brilliant in her interpretation of swaying seas, slow motions action (my favorite parts), fancy footwork and extreme physicality.
Charming Andrew Pollard as Phileas Fogg is a dapper man of stature, vertically rising above other cast mates. He portrays Fogg as a calm and collected man who doesn't give in to frenzy. He is dignified and refined in all he does. His portrayal reminded me of British actor John Cleese. Counterintuitive to his demeanor though, he spends money rather lavishly to complete his quest. I would have loved to see him melt just a little more when Mrs. Aouda proposed to him. Michael Hugo as Passepartout absolutely steals the show with his athleticism, sweet and kind disposition and benevolence to his employer. This is a man who takes time out to smell the roses, trusts everyone, maybe a little too much, and has idealistic views of the world in general. He was called upon to sing, dance, vocalize a thick French accent, and interact with the audience, which he later worked into the show. His character is lovable and his performance is a tour de force. Pollard and Hugo are reminiscent of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho following his master to the end. The lovely Kirsten Foster is a woman of today's mindset. She's beautiful, intelligent, strong, courageous and does what she needs to do to get the job done - a perfect match for Fogg. Dennis Herdman as Inspector Fix reminded me of Peter Seller's Pink Panther, Inspector Clouseau. Herdman brough sneaky, crafy and silly to life as he traveled just a few steps behind Fogg and his devotees. I couldn't go without adding kudos to Joey Parsad (Miss Singh), Nyron Levy (Captain Speedy), Matthew Ganley (Colonel Proctor), Pushpinder Chani (Mr. Naidu) and Stefan Ruiz, who were up to the physically and vocally demanding tasks of playing several different characters throughout this production.
Director Theresa Heskins let go of all sanity in this hilarious romp around the globe. According to the program notes what attracted her to directing this play was the impossibility of it. "The whole world on stage basically. Specifically, 125 characters, 8 countries, 6 trains, 5 boats, 4 flights, a circus and an elephant. Quite impossible. But she and the cast and crew did it. Lis Evans' clever props and interesting scenic designs nicely appointed the stage representing the ports of call. Her use of steamer trunks and various suitcase designs for the staircase was brilliant. Alexandra Stafford's lighting highlighted each new scene perfectly and was particularly outstanding during the slow motion movements that went from bright lighting to a toned down blue hue that gave it a dramatic almost back and white effect. I would recommend dialogue coach and sound techs give this production a good listen, as I couldn't understand a lot of the dialogue whether due to acoustics or overly thick accents.
In closing I would like to say although slapstick and repetitive humor is not my cup of tea, I like what Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards said about this production, "It is a fresh and innovative theatrical journey that is bound to intrigue and delight audiences of all ages, and transform the young first time patrons into lifelong theatergoers". I am all for anything that promotes the stage to the next generation of audience members. I have leaned a lesson here - that not all genres or types of theater are good or bad. They are just different and appeal to different people. And that is what makes the world go round in 80 days. Or less.
Around the World in 80 Days will be staged at the Asolo through June 23, 2019. Family Day is June 15 with preshow activities prior to the matinee. For more information about the Asolo Repertory Theatre visit www.asolorep.org.
In 1889, journalist Nellie Bly went undercover to travel around the world in 80 days for her newspaper, the New York World. She managed to complete the journey within 72 days, meeting Jules Verne in Amiens, France. Her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, became a best seller. She was an American journalist and a pioneer in her field, launching a new kind of investigative journalism.
In 1989, Monty Python alumnus, Michael Palin, took a similar challenge as a part of a television travelogue titled, Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin. He completed the journey in 79 days and 7 hours.