Jules Verne’s classic story, Around the World in 80 Days, is fun, fast-paced Victorian adventure at its finest. It has struggled over the years with its various stage and screen adaptations, however, which often try to make the story even crazier than what Verne wrote. TheatreWorks’ holiday show sticks close to the book and is even more funny, clever and enjoyable than the book.
The show follows Phileas Fogg (Jason Kuykendall), a man who is exact and punctual, who makes a bet that he can go around the world in just 80 days, a feet newly possible in 1870. With his new manservant, Passepartout (Tristan Cunningham), Fogg utilizes trains, boats, elephants and more to keep on schedule and circumnavigate the globe by his allotted 80 days.
The script is fabulous. Written by Mark Brown, the show is quick and lively despite the constant changes of setting. It sticks very close to the source material while making use of a small cast with quick character changes and a steady pace of plot and jokes.
The whole show is performed with just five actors and one, highly involved Foley and Special Effects Artist. One actor however, stands out because of the number and quality of characters he plays. While the other actors have one main role they play, Ron Campbell plays everyone else. And he’s incredible. Each character has a different accent, movement style and characteristics. He’s funny, quick and manages to breathe life into his characters, no matter how briefly they’re on stage. From a British clerk to an American cowboy to a maid, Campbell makes every character unique and memorable. Honestly, it’s worth the ticket price just to see him change characters so quickly and so well.
Tristan Cunningham, who plays Passepartout, is also incredible. She keeps up a seamless French accent throughout the show and delivers each of the character’s many jokes with impeccable timing. Not to mention the tumbling and flipping she does at various points throughout the show. Furthermore, Cunningham doesn’t make the character too silly. Passepartout is a character who could be played just for the laughs, but instead she brings a lot of humanity to the character which makes you worry about his absence as much as the other characters at various points in act two.
And the set! It’s gorgeous. Inspired by a Parisian boardgame about the book, Joe Ragey has created a set that reflects the journey of the characters while making every inch of it work triple time. The second tier of the stage becomes boats and elephants while projections behind the actors show a globe with their progress. A screen painted to look like the board game has doors that open to become ticket booths or cover for costume and scene changes. Even the train tracks around the edge of the stage are eventually pulled off to become firewood. The design is incredibly functional, while also being beautiful and evocative of the 1870s.
The show is a rollicking good time. Every scene is funny, but it never loses the emotional core that makes the story so good. Too often, Fogg’s character is made out to be more adventurous and exciting than the punctual, decisive man Verne wrote. Brown expertly weaves together jokes from the book and more modern references. One minute the characters are having teatime on an elephant, the next they’re surging forward to the Indiana Jones theme tune.
Whether you can quote the book by heart or know nothing about it, TheatreWorks’ production of Around the World in 80 Days is surprising and delightful. There’s nothing I can find to even critique about the show. Every potential weakness has been turned into a strength. The small cast and the limited set add to the comedy rather than limit the production and the strong actors stay true to the emotions of the show despite the constant joking.
Around the World in 80 Days is playing at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto from now until December 31, 2017. Tickets range from $40 to $100 with discounts available for educators, seniors and patrons under 35.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne.