Almost everyone is familiar with producer Michael Todd’s sprawling, spectacular wide-screen all-star 1956 film version of Jules Verne’s classic 1873 adventure novel. There have, however, been a number of film and stage adaptations, beginning with a silent 1919 film, and even two musical versions: one (virtually forgotten) produced in 1936 by Orson Welles with a score by Cole Porter, and more recently one presented by the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA, in 2007. Despite Verne’s original intent, comedy has been the engine for most of the post-Verne versions.
The comedic approach has not escaped director Michael Evan Haney, who has five capable actors playing more than 30 roles in the globe-trotting yarn, as compactly adapted by Mark Brown. While changing costumes, wigs, accents, genders, and nationalities in a flash provides a field day for the actors, the gimmick tends to become the most admirable aspect of this rather undernourished production. The script allows for a few nicely earned laughs, but the pacing tends to lag, especially during Act I. Act II is peppier with a monsoon at sea, a speeding train going over a collapsing trestle, an Indian attack, and a sled ride over ice and snow following in quick succession. This is all accomplished with considerably more brio than brilliance.
As produced by the Irish Repertory Theater in association with the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (where it recently closed the 2007-’08 season), “80 Days” is a modestly conceived and designed entertainment made more attractive by an array of stunning costumes, the work of David K. Mickelsen. In accordance with the story, Phileas Fogg lavishes a wardrobe fit for a princess upon Aouda (Lauren Elise McCord), the Parsi woman he rescues from being sacrificed on a funeral pyre by Thuggee worshippers. This version, which premiered in 2001 at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in 2001, is apparently geared for family audiences whose demands are met with a minimum of stage magic.
In tune with the time and locale, there are glints of Victoriana and exotica among the many props and easily adaptable adornments that grace each change of scene from Bombay to Calcutta to Hong Kong to Yokohama to San Francisco, etc. Particularly amusing is how an elephant is created by a chair, a table and a steamer trunk covered with a fancy fabric. Even more in tune is the atmospheric musical accompaniment provided by two musicians at the rear of the stage.
Director Haney maintains his focus on keeping the action as frenzied as possible, even if it also seems endless in its prescribed perils. This is not to say that Fogg’s madcap bet with his friends at the Reform Club to win 20,000 British pounds if he should travel round the world and make it back to the club in 80 days doesn’t move with purpose and clarity. The story is a familiar one and the action designed to test the concerted talents of the four men and one woman.
Although John Keating flings himself into such diverse characterizations as a priest, Indian train conductor, and elephant owner, he registers principally as the obsessive Detective Fix, who stays close on the trail of Fogg, believing him to be a bank robber. Jay Russell takes on 14 assignments, including that of a Chinese broker, with aplomb. Evan Zes is assigned only two roles, but his primary one is portraying Fogg’s French man-servant Passepartout. His French, not unlike that spoken by the irrepressible Inspector Clouzot, can best be described as ersatz (“We smoka da piss pipe”).
The exception to the multiple role playing is Daniel Stewart, who steadfastly remains the independently wealthy, stiff-necked, persnickety, and resolute Phileas Fogg, who ultimately and unwittingly succumbs to romance. It’s a persuasive performance.
It is virtually impossible not to think of the recent more convulsively funny version of “Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps,” which uses four actors to play many more characters. Perhaps Haney’s direction of “80 Days” isn’t as imaginative as it could be or perhaps Brown’s adaptation isn’t as witty or as cleverly inspired as it might be. Just as Fogg’s goal is to arrive back home in 80 days, you may consider how lucky you are if your trip home takes you less than an hour.
— Simon Saltzman
“Around the World in 80 Days,” through September 7, Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street. $55 to $60. 212-727-2737.