Are you impatient for the completion of the California high-speed rail line or eager for the return of supersonic air travel? While you’re waiting, pack your bags and hold on to your hat as punctilious, persnickety, pedantic Phileas Fogg takes you a laugh-filled gallop around the globe in the North Coast Rep’s production of “Around the World in 80 Days.”
This San Diego Premiere of an adaptation by Mark Brown of the Jules Verne novel populates the stage with 42 characters portrayed by five actors and provides action as dizzying as the timetable it keeps.
The year is 1872. Mathematically precise Fogg (Richard Baird) has just fired his valet for the unpardonable crime of drawing his shaving water two degrees below what Fogg insists is the “correct” temperature. Enter new hire, a Frenchman named Passepartout (Omri Schein), who seems an unlikely replacement given his last job was that of a circus performer. [Schein brings to the role convincing acrobatics skills.]
While visiting the private Reform Club, Fogg engages in a lively debate with several gentlemen as to whether a series of transportation achievements grabbing headlines has now made it possible to travel around the world in 80 days. A sizeable wager is made and Fogg departs that very night with a bewildered Passepartout, whose juggling skills will come in handy in the intervening weeks.
The duo picks up more than passport stamps when crossing borders as they are doggedly (and ineptly) pursued by Scotland Yard Detective Fix (Loren Lester, as an endearing constable), who finds Fogg’s hasty departure from London highly suspect coming immediately after an audacious bank robbery. The bumbling Fix might be on to something, however, given that Fogg travels with only a carpetbag that he constantly lightens by handing out rolls of money like lollipops.
Greasing palms facilitates and smoothes missed connections, cultural misunderstandings, runaway trains, rough seas, the rescue of an Indian princess named Aouda (Lovelee Carroll, as lovely as her name), a side trip on an elephant, encounters with Indians (both Asian and American), monsoons, typhoons and the burning of deck chairs as fuel to keep a commandeered boat chugging toward the finish line. An ever-changing array of porters, passport agents, Reform Club gents, shopkeepers, angry mobs, an elephant handler and sea captains are energetically and ably portrayed by Will Vought, Loren Lester, Lovelee Carroll and Omri Schein.
There are also musical chairs, courtesy of prop designer Holly Gillard. Fluidly rearranged, they represent the Reform Club, train carriages, the Grand Bizarre, ship decks and an elephant! The latter utterly convincing with the addition of…wait for it…a steamer trunk (labeled “trunk”) and gray-lace parasols serving as ears. Sound design (Dave Mickey) has never been more valuable in advancing story; from the insistent ticking of a pocket watch to train toots to the trumpeting pachyderm.
The entire back wall of the set (by designer Marty Burnett) is covered with a world map containing head-size panels that open and close (not unlike the joke wall of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”) allowing the actors to supply narration. Carts roll out of the wall as needed to serve as immigration desks, hotel check-in desks and tea trolleys. Conveying hot desert sun, filtered jungle light and storm-tossed seas is light designer Mart Novotny.
Costume designer Kimberly DeShazo will receive no complaints from fastidious Fogg arrayed in a proper Victorian morning coat, brocade vest with watch chain, cravat and top hat. A nice touch to Passepartout’s garb is the grid pattern on his vest that suggests a Mercator map. Sari-draped Aouda looks every inch the princess she is. Detective Fix is lost (both physically and procedurally) in slouchy, trench-coat garb. Among the worthy contributions of hair-and-wig designer Gabe Nunez are slap-on moustaches (emphasis on slap) and flowing beards that birds could nest in.
By Lynne Friedmann