When Jules Verne created Phileas Fogg in 1872, he gave his readers a protagonist who embodies the most radical contradictions. So regulated is Fogg in his daily habits that he fires his valet for preparing his shaving water 1 degree Celsius too cool. Yet the starchy, regimented Englishman is ready to leave home and country on a few hours' notice just to prove a point — and hazard 20,000 pounds on the outcome.
So you're likely to be delighted by Mark Brown's stage adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, which sports some startling contradictions of its own. Whether the adaptor was Orson Welles with Cole Porter or Mike Todd with Todd-AO, the tradition of 80 Days adaptations for stage and screen can be described in one word: humongous. Todd's 1956 extravaganza was shot at 60 locations around the globe and featured a cast of thousands — on a film format that was wider than widescreen.
Brown takes the opposite tack, reducing the number of players to five, simplifying scenery beneath the barest necessities, and cutting the running time to two hours flat. Like last season's The 39 Steps, this reduction tips the balance away from drama decisively to comedy. Yet the elements of adventure, suspense and romance aren't forgotten.
Directing the Theatre Charlotte production, Nicia Carla and her design team are zealously committed to simplicity and economy — and to exercising our imaginations. On the raked set, designed by Jim Yost, a few chairs, tables and steamer trunks are reconfigured by the mighty little cast to change locales. Or vehicles, to be precise.
So Fogg's epic odyssey comes equipped with low-budget versions of ships, trains, a camel, a snow sledge and, most hilariously of all, an elephant. When Fogg's new valet, Passepartout, fails to join his master for the voyage from Hong Kong, the actor playing him, Lee Thomas, skulks back onstage with a strip of blue cardboard, representing the sea as Fogg's vessel is lashed by a typhoon.
Chintzy as the props and scenery may be, costume designer Jamey Varnadore gets a budget to outfit the 30-plus characters, ranging from a train porter to an Indian princess. There's never any confusion about who we're watching.
Nobody gets to spring more of these surprises than Peter Smeal, carrying much of the comedy lode. He begins as one of the three gentlemen betting against Fogg's success and then impersonates no less than 15 of the people who facilitate or impede the journey. Philip Robertson is not quite that prolific, spending most of his stage time as Fogg's implacable pursuer, Detective Fix of Scotland Yard, but he owns that elephant and has a cameo in drag.
After cross-dressing as Phileas' former valet, Andrea King plays the one major female role, Princess Aouda, whom Fogg rescues from human sacrifice. After so many butch and drag roles, turns out King can do a woman quite nicely. Easier to predict was Thomas's triumph as Passepartout, nearly as starchy as Fogg while flogging the English language with a thick French accent.
Younger by at least 10 years than a gentleman who has become bored with his mode of living, Robert Crozier is the essence of British propriety and punctiliousness as Fogg. If this man tells you he will circumnavigate the globe in 80 days via rail and steamer, you can set the hands of Big Ben by his word.