Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

Balance and Milwaukee Chamber's Around the World In 80 Days

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Oftentimes, when elements of design are brilliantly done in a stage production, they go completely unnoticed. This is because the best design elements of a show seamlessly fuse with the rest of what’s going to create a total dramatic package. Most people really never notice lighting, sound design or set design unless it’s exceptionally bad or good. And when some elements of design are really breathtakingly good, it can sometimes distract from the rest of a production. Big budget productions (quite often touring Broadway shows) can use this to their advantage, creating spectacles that are very glossy and impressive to distract from scripts that are relatively flimsy and boring. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Around The World In 80 Days is a brilliant example of production design that is both notably impressive AND exceptionally well balanced under the direction of Patrick Holland.

The Mark Brown script has taken the adventure novel and turned it into a quick, entertaining stage presentation that values comedy over adventure. Having inherited the focus on comedy from the script, Milwaukee Chamber and Patrick Holland do a remarkably effective comic production. The steampunk-inspired production design finds the entire cast performing in a beautiful Keith Pitts set complete with dozen of tiny scenic elements that are largely operated by stage hands in leather aprons and goggles cleverly put together by costume designer Kristina Van Slyke. The real joy here is how all the elements of the adventure are brought to the stage. Before the show started, I was able to spot where in the stage they were going to stage the elephant ride through India, but the way they executed it was a pleasant surprise . . . really ingenious. My biggest disappointment was that there were no scenic elements that graphically showed the journey in a consistent manner. There’s an itinerary to one side of the stage that is checked-off over the course of the play, but the tension of the adventure is largely absent. This is perfectly okay as the comedy is brought so vividly to the stage with scenic props. The railroad trip across the United States is a particularly clever use of maps . . . not at all what you might expect and altogether very brilliant. The train car itself is a very clever bit of design as well . . . utilizing minimal space quite effectively. Jason Fassl’s lighting brilliantly brings across the drama and romance of the story in certain moments. Night scenes balance light and shadow with dazzling efficiency. Lighting, design, comic and dramatic acting take turns moving to center stage over the course of the production, nearly perfectly in balance in the scene between Chris Klopatek (as Passepartout) and Robert Spencer (as Detec . . .uhh . . .Mr. Detecamafix) in an opium den. The lighting, scenic design and acting are all in brilliant balance for one single moment. Patrick Holland has done a really good job of keeping everything in balance here while simultaneously allowing all the elements of design to make a firm impression on the audience.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Around the World In 80 Days runs through August 30th. A comprehensive review of the show appears in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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