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Northern Stage Presets 39 STEPS, 11/3-21

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Take an action-packed Alfred Hitchcock thriller, assign over 100 roles to only four actors, and amp up the comedy, and the result is the Broadway hit Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, on stage in November.
 
Starring John Patrick Hayden, who played the title role in last year's award-winning production of Hamlet, The 39 Steps places a borEd English gentleman square in the middle of a sinister espionage plot that takes him from his dull London flat to a series of wild adventures in Scotland and England.  Filled with exciting chase scenes (including a train, a car and even a plane) and improbable escapes, this fast-paced, madcap comedy offers a thrill-and many laughs-a minute.
 
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, directed by Catherine Doherty, runs live on stage at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction from November 3 - 21, 2010.  Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m., except for the Opening Night performance on Friday, Nov. 5 at 7:00 p.m., with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Thursday, Nov. 11.  For tickets and information, call 802-296-7000.  Tickets are also available through the Northern Stage website, www.northernstage.org.

Set in 1935, The 39 Steps begins when a mysterious woman accosts the handsome and dashing Richard Hannay at the theater.  Claiming that her life is in danger, she persuades Hannay to take her in.  Based on a cryptic comment about "the 39 Steps," Hannay escapes his home posing as a milkman and begins his adventure, which leads him to the sinister Professor Jordan.  Time after time, he uses his ingenuity to escape from his pursuers, risking his life to protect the Motherland's military secrets.  Along the way, he meets up with beautiful women, bumbling faux policemen, a crusty old farmer and a pair of charming innkeepers, as well as the amazing vaudeville performer Mr. Memory.
 
Broadway veteran Hayden is joined by returning actors Kathryn Merry and Richard Price, as well as Northern Stage newcomer Kevin Crewell, who comes to us from the Broadway production of Spamalot and the National Tour of Jersey Boys.  Merry previously appeared here as a wisecracking comedy writer in Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Rosalind, the love interest in Moon Over Buffalo.  She appeared in the Off-Broadway production and National Tour of Othello as Desdemona and at the White House in Much Ado About Nothing.  Price played multiple roles in The Elephant Man and the Rev. Samuel Parris in The Crucible.
 
About the PlayThe 39 Steps began as one of five adventure novels by John Buchan featuring Richard Hannay.  Although the original novel was written in 1915 and set in the years before World War I, the Alfred Hitchcock film (and the play you see today) was set in 1935 (the year the film was made).  Buchan described it as a "shocker," or an adventure that contains extraordinary events that are just barely believable.  Hannay was a bit of an Indiana Jones of his time.  Buchan wrote the book while recovering from a duodenal ulcer, a lifelong illness.  According to Buchan's son William, the title came from the private nursing home where his father was convalescing.  William Buchan writes, "There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach.  My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: 'There are 39 steps.'"  When the wooden stairs were replaced with concrete, a portion of the stairs was given to Buchan.  The book was a hit with soldiers during World War I; one wrote to Buchan, "The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."
 
The film makes many changes from the book; for instance, Annabella Schmidt was originally a man named Franklin P. Scudder.  Pamela was also added for the film.  (Hitchcock liked his ingénues, and a love story, utterly absent from Buchan's novel, was nearly a necessity in the 1930s.)  In the film and play, the 39 Steps is the name of the evil organization; in the novel, the group is called the Black Stone, and "39 steps" refers to actual steps in different locations.  However, the film and play retain the train, airplane and car chases that grace the novel.  In the film, Hannay is portrayed by Robert Donat, a dashing British actor who later won an Academy Award for his performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.  Donat won that award over some notable competition: Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights and Mickey Rooney in Babes In Arms.
 
The film was named fourth best British film ever in a poll by the British Film Institute in 1999.  The story was filmed two other times, in 1959 and 1978 (with the latter featuring a memorable scene with Hannay hanging from the hands of Big Ben).  Director Robert Towne (who wrote films such as Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde and the first two Mission: Impossible installments) plans a remake of the Hitchcock version, with the release date uncertain.  A 1939 radio adaptation starred Orson Welles.
 
The play version was first devised by British actor-director Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, artistic director of England's North Country Theatre. After touring the play to local music halls, they asked Patrick Barlow to write a full stage adaptation based on the film but using only four actors, enhancing the comic effect.  (As you're watching, see how many references to Hitchcock films you can spot.)
 
The play first opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in June 2005; a revised production moved to Nicolas Kent's Tricycle Theatre in London in August 2006, with a cast that included Rupert Degas, Charles Edwards, Simon Gregor and Catherine McCormick (who played Murron MacClannough in the film Braveheart). Edwards, as Richard Hannay, was the only member of that cast to join the first U.S. production at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston in September of 2007, which later transferred to Broadway's American Airlines Theatre in January 2008 as Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps.  After three months, the play moved to the Cort Theatre and finally to the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it finally closed on January 10, 2010 after 771 performances.  The play was restaged at the Off-Broadway New World Stages in March of this year and still performs there.  Edwards was joined by Jennifer Ferrin, Amie Burton and Cliff Saunders.  He was later replaced by Sam Robards, the son of Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall.
 
The 39 Steps won an Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007 and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two (Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design).  Director Maria Aitken-who also directed the West End production-picked up a nomination.
 
As an interesting bit of trivia, there was a punk rock band from Canada called 39 Steps that took their name from the film; the band performed in the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters in a scene set in the legendary music venue CBGB's.
 
For information or tickets, call 802-296-7000, e-mail boxoffice@northernstage.org, or log on to www.northernstage.org.  The Box Office at the Briggs Opera House is open beginning two hours before all performances; tickets for all shows are available by phone or at the Northern Stage administrative office at 28 Gates Street, White River Junction, Monday-Friday from 12 noon-6 p.m.


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