Friday, Oct. 29, 2010

The World In A Matchbox: Around The World With Off The Wall Theatre

Off The Wall Theatre’s AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It was an intimate crowd last night for a performance of Dale Gutzman’s second part of Around the World in 80 Days: The Musical. Evidently selling far better on the weekends, the weeknight shows have been sparsely attended. Gutzman’s ambitious 4-hour long musical is filtered through the intimate space of the Off The Wall Theatre in 2 separate two-hour performances, each consisting of two one hour-long acts bisected by an intermission. The weekend performances, which run through November 7th, allow audiences to catch the entire show over the course of a day. The weekday performances separate the journey into two single-evening performances. (It’s all very precise on paper.) 

The production itself is a fun, campy presentation of Jules Verne’s classic 1873 novel. Robert Hirschi plays a shy, humble Phileas Fogg. Though a competent singe and a very compassionate figure onstage, Hirschi largely lacks the unwavering sense of perfection and precision of the character’s counterpart in Verne’s novel. Jeremy Welter plays Fogg’s valet Passepartout. An exceedingly dynamic performer, Welter does a solidly respectable job of making the French valet seem charming and affable. The overall direction the character takes is one that is all too common in dramatic adaptations of the story—the fact is that Verne wrote the French valet to be a staggeringly interesting person who just happened to be following this Englishman round on his crazy plan to travel around the world in a very brief period of time with extreme precision. Like so many other presentations, Gutzman’s Around the World envisions the character as little more than a cute mascot for the central hero of Fogg.

Other notable performances include Robert Zimmermana British detective following Fogg around and Heather Reynolds as Aouda—an Indian princess who is saved from certain death by Passepartout acting on Fogg’s behalf. Zimmerman has a distinctly British charm about him in the role of the detective. The flavor of a character who will stop at nothing to apprehend a man he believes to be a bank thief is brought vividly to the stage by Zimmerman. Thugh it endd up being a fairly major subplot, the love between Aouda and Fogg never seemed all that substantial in the original book. Though solidly competent performances by Reynolds and Hirschi, the romance feels much more substantial here, aided as it is by solidly competent script work on the part of Gutzman.

In 1946, Orson Welles starred in a stage production of an Around the World musical that he staged. The music and lyrics for that production were written by Cole Porter. That would’ve been an interesting show to see staged—but probably a pretty significant disappointment given the immensity of both of the names involved in the musical. Judging from the fact that it closed quite rapidly having lost a great deal of money, it probably wasn’t that good. It may not be as accomplished as Welles’ production, but Gutzman’s Around The World will likely break even and/or make a small profit, which is more than can be said for the 1946 Welles/Porter production.

For his part, Gutzman does a pretty good job of framing the story in eight one-hour acts that occasionally touch on social commentary. Though not as talented a lyricist as Cole Porter, Gutzman puts together a pleasantly campy show with sweetly overblown sentiment that solidly avoids the kind of cloying hamminess one might tend to dread from a four-hour long musical. Drawing generously from some rather shrewdly-chosen public domain tunes, Gutzman lays-in fun, bouncy lyrics that carry the story from one moment to the next.

The production has a great many costumes, props and bits of scenery. None of the visuals are particularly impressive in and of themselves, but the total journey from England to Asia to America and back to England is brisk and interesting enough to feel like an adventure. The world quickly whisks by in costumes and scenery adorned and moved about onstage by a hefty number of actors for such a small space. It’s a matter of seeing the world through a musical puppet show delivered in a tiny matchbox—a fun, campy show that asks for nothing more from its audiences than a few paltry hours of its time. This is light comedy that is firmly aware of its own limitations. Without pretensions toward anything greater, the show is a rough-hewn musical fever dream in a very small space.

Off The Wall Theatre’s Around The World In 80 Days runs through November 7th. Call 414-327-3552 for tickets.

 

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