BWW Review: The Asolo's Inventive, Slapstick Production of Jules Verne's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS - Perfect for the Kid Inside Every Adult
Theatre has the ability to change young lives. For instance, in the early 1980's when I was a teenager, I saw a professional touring company perform Rashomon, and I was awe-struck. It didn't hurt that the company was the Sarasota-based Asolo Theatre (which used to tour schools around Florida), and watching this spellbinding production, I knew that that's what I wanted to do with my life. This magic, this world of the stage, a world where we get to create stories, where we can both entertain and disturb, celebrate and mourn, laugh and tear-up, sometimes at the same time...who wouldn't want to do this for the rest of their lives? I was so moved by the experience that I was even interviewed and quoted by the local newspaper (Florida Today) after seeing this show.
Swish pan to nearly forty years later. It's June of 2019, and I am sitting in the Asolo Theatre, seeing the audience members take their seats before the latest creatively-staged endeavor by the group that had changed my life so long ago. It's not Rashomon this time; it's Jules Verne's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, adapted by Laura Eason. Some in the audience were children, and this made my heart glad. Maybe they, like me, will have their lives changed by the power of theatre tonight. For some adults, this clever, crazy, slapstick take on the Verne classic is just a fun way to pass time, an entertaining throwaway. But maybe for a child or two, watching this fun and funny production, with so much physical humor that it will take your breath away, could be life-saving.
We know the story of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, mostly from the Academy Award winning film: On a bet, the haughty, British, nose-always-up Phileas Fogg hopscotches around the world with his hilarious sidekick/valet, Passepartout. They run into a surfeit of trouble, to say the least, and constantly have to find inventive ways to circumnavigate the globe in four-score days in order to win the bet. In this production, insanely and brilliantly directed by Theresa Heskins, there are only a hand full of members in the cast, but you would think you were watching dozens and dozens of people from various countries populate the stage.
It's quite a wild journey. Imagine Disney's "It's a Small World" ride on methamphetamine, or a rip-roaring light-speed tour of Epcot.
What makes this production so special is the outstanding physical work of the cast, the acrobatics and body movement, and I'm sure the movement director (Beverley Norris-Edmunds) is as important as Ms. Heskins in this regard. You've never seen anything like it outside of a circus. Bodies flipping and performing acrobatics; slow motion action brilliantly rendered by the actors; cast members like game pieces dancing on and off the set, carrying various pieces; and best of all, pantomime fight scenes that look like something straight out of The Matrix.
Andrew Pollard makes for an ideal Phileas Fogg (as David Niven did in the movie). He stands taller than the rest of the cast, bearded and dapper, looking like a younger Charles Dance with a hint of Iain Glen (for you Game of Thrones fans) and Ken Howard (for you White Shadow fans, all two of you). He keeps his head together while the rest of the cast, the world, goes berserk around him. And as his future love interest, Mrs. Aouda, Kirsten Foster commands the stage while never losing her loveliness.
Dennis Herdman as Inspector Fix, who follows Fogg across the globe because he thinks he is the same man who committed a crime in England, is the nearest thing the play has to a villain. Herdman's Fix slinks about the set, in and out of the shadows, always at the wrong place at the wrong time. He's like two other inspectors--Clouseau and Javert--rolled into one. But it was sometimes hard to understand all of Herdman's dialogue, as it was difficult to understand some of the rest of the cast due to thick accents and enunciation issues. (I wondered sometimes if subtitles were needed in the production.)
Make no mistake; the title may be AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, but judging from this production, it should be called Passepartout. Forget Cantinflas. Michael Hugo as Fogg's sidekick is the real standout here.
Hugo has created an indelible character, a Lilliputian laughingstock, Roberto Bernini meets Lucky the Leprechaun. He's so good, it's like watching a master class in slapstick comedy. And Hugo's gift at improv knows no bounds. He spoke to an audience member at the start of Act 2--creating songs on the spot that he sang with a ukulele--and discovered that the audience member was a pharmacist. Throughout Act 2, he would turn to the pharmacist and offer a line or two. At one point he calls a woman onstage to help him move out of an opium den; his drugged struggle reminded me of Leonardo DiCaprio's Quaalude-induced slow-motion venture from his car to his home in The Wolf of Wall Street. Hugo hilariously exits the scene by doing a rather energetic Worm.
The production is goofy, sometimes too goofy for its own good, and contains the single worst forced, fake laugh I have ever heard in a professional show (by design, I take it; but why?). It also became repetitious at times, like Jules Verne's version of Groundhog Day.
Lisa Evans' set design is ingenious--from the giant map background to numerous suitcases and trunks that create a stairway, a row of umbrellas lining the bannister. That said, the hot air balloon (the most memorable mode of transportation in the movie) is given a pathetic cameo, which was meant to garner laughs: a tiny model, not unlike the miniature Stonehenge from This is Spinal Tap. All that was missing were the little people dancing around it.
James Earle-Davis' sound effects, especially the sound of punches like in a martial arts movie, rival Michael Hugo as the real star of this AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, and James Atherton's musical compositions complement the scenes well enough. Alexandra Stafford's lighting also works well, quickly conveying the moods of the various places that Fogg visits. (The costumes also appropriately fit the time period and work wonderfully; why is there no costume designer mentioned in the program?)
My anachronism alarms went off when Passepartout held an old Teddy bear among his items. As any historian knows, the Teddy bear wasn't invented until the 20th Century, and since AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS takes place in 1872, this causes a minor timeline disturbance. Maybe the French valet got a sneak peak of one from the Steiff family sometime in Germany; who knows?
The fun started even before the play. There's a sort of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" type of game in the lobby for you to enjoy while waiting--stick the pin in the country you're from (expectedly, you could see the pins of many people from the U.S., but it sure seemed like too many of those were from Michigan on opening night).
This show is nothing but a mind-free joyous time, and if that's not your cup of Lady Grey tea, then AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS is certainly not for you. This is not Miss Julie or The Dance of Death; if it's serious Strindberg or the like that you crave, then you will not enjoy one iota of Fogg's over-the-top globe-trotting exploits. You will sit quietly in misery, as the audience is cackling around you (it almost exploded with laughter quite often on opening night), and you will endure this three-ring adventure, wondering over and over: When will it ever end?
But for those of you who are looking for a good time, a rollicking roll in the aisles, then go no further. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS is the show for you. A strong cast; impeccable timing; brilliant direction and physical comedy; and a party-hardy atmosphere that celebrates the joys of the stage; what more could you ask for? Just don't forget to bring the little ones, your children, whose lives may be changed, like mine was all those years ago, by the Asolo's latest foray into theatrical magic.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS at the Asolo Rep in Sarasota runs thru June 23rd, with a special Family Day on June 15th.