As a child, reading Jules Verne was everything. It wasn’t simply the fun of enjoying futuristic inventions and machinery as predicted by an author of the past, it was because his characters always seemed to be going somewhere, whether it be in a rocket to the moon, spending five weeks in a balloon or down in a submarine, twenty thousand leagues under the sea; and the reader went on that same journey, every step of the way.
Ironically, outside of his native France, Verne’s most popular book had nothing to do with science fiction or imagining a future of fantastical machines that took readers to uncharted areas; it was our world as it is, or had become in 1872, as seen through the eyes of members of the British Empire. It was a journey of epic proportions that took readers Around the World in 80 Days. Filmmaker Mike Todd captured that epic spirit with his huge, 1956 widescreen extravaganza with David Niven, supported by a cast of thousands. How remarkable, then, that Arizona Theatre Company can pull off that same effect by taking that same, epic journey live on stage with a cast of only five.
As adapted by playwright Mark Brown, the structure of this new, comically inventive adventure is surprisingly faithful to Verne’s original work, even down to the smallest of interesting details. Actors turn to the audience and inform us of what is happening and where, explaining times, dates and locations in the way the narrator in prose sets the scene for the reader, only here a character will occasionally turn to whoever happens to be narrating and comment back, sometimes even protesting if they’re not entirely happy with their progress.
Phileas Fogg (Mark Anders) is a wealthy and humorless English gentleman, slave to his own absurd sense of punctuality and habits, living a life executed daily with mathematical precision. Of course, it’s his wealth that allows him to act as he does, and it’s also his wealth that causes him to enter a wager with fellow members of his exclusive London Reform Club. Because of new, nineteenth century technology and the opening of railway lines across India, Fogg insists that it is now possible to circumnavigate the world in eighty days. The other members of the club accept the bet, and off Fogg goes, that same evening, taking with him his new valet, Frenchman Jean Passepartout (Jon Gentry) a name, when translated into English means appropriately ‘goes anywhere,’ the previous valet having been dismissed for bringing Fogg’s bowl of shaving water at a temperature of 84 degrees instead of the 86 that the gentleman demands.
What follows is a wild ride from country to country where locations are brought to mind by a combination of creative and often comical sound effects from designer Brian Jerome Peterson, backscreen projections of newspaper headlines, maps and city locations by Gregory W. Towle, elaborate and often eye-catching costumes from designer Karen Ledger, scene setting musical clips from Roberta Carlson, lighting from David Lee Cuthbert, and all supported by a wonderfully constructed set design from Carey Wong where a spiral staircase can suddenly become a judge’s high bench and the lengthy rail of a balcony becomes a journey by train from San Francisco to New York. In a production such as this, David P. Saar doesn’t simply direct, he juggles, and the end result is inspiring.
Mark Anders as Fogg may be the central figure – he delivers the tone of an Englishman’s stiff-upper-lip just right – but he’s also the straight man, the one constant throughout. It’s the remaining four actors who do double duty and more as all the other characters, adopting accents and different costumes, often at a moment’s notice depending on where they are in the world, and it’s all executed with the kind of precision timing that would have impressed even Phileas Fogg.
Early reviews when this production opened in Tucson complained of off-pacing and unresponsive audiences, but there was no sign of those problems at the Herberger Theatre in Phoenix this opening weekend. All members of the cast – Kyle Sorrell, Yolanda London, Bob Sorenson, and especially Jon Gentry as a very funny French valet – won over a packed valley audience who not only laughed and applauded individual creative moments, but cheered and whooped in the spirit of grand vaudeville as our intrepid adventurers attempted to reach that final destination in order to win the wager.
Around the World in 80 Days achieves several things; it’s very funny, hugely entertaining, and with its inventiveness where boxes are assembled before our eyes to make a walking elephant in India or where Passepartout climbs under the construction of the balcony while creating the illusion that he’s really under the carriage of a speeding train, it’s also great theatre. Plus, it’s the first production seen for a while that inspires the desire to go back and take that journey around the world at the Herberger all over again, just for the fun of it.
For times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ATC website.