Theater review: "Around the World in 80 Days," a play based on the Jules Verne classic, lights up the Taproot Theatre stage with a small, multiple-role cast and a simple but effective set; it plays through June 20.
“What a journey — what a marvelous and extraordinary journey!” wrote Jules Verne in his watershed science-fiction novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
The same could be said for other extraordinary excursions the 19th-century author brought his readers along on in his remarkable tales — a balloon flight, a voyage to the depths of the ocean, and a journey around the world by train, boat and other means, covering some 26,000 miles in a mere 80 days.
Mark Brown’s play based on “Around the World in 80 Days,” now at Taproot Theatre, condenses Verne’s imagined sprint into a G-rated, two-act romp requiring five actors and almost no luggage — or other props.
This is not simply one way to dramatize a story that has delighted armchair adventurers since its first publication in 1872. It’s one of the best ways.
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Yes, elaborate films of Verne’s tour-de-force novel, like the 1956 Technicolor odyssey that starred David Niven, can go on location to shoot the entire route charted by the London gentleman Phileas Fogg, who gambles his fortune on a wager that he can circle the globe in 80 days.
But Brown’s version, staged at an agile sprint by director Scott Nolte, makes us use our imaginations the way Victorian readers had to.
We begin in London at the home and club of Mr. Fogg (played with phlegmatic, imperious perfection by the top-hatted Ryan Childers). Then we whisk along with him and his quirky French manservant Passepartout (Nolan Palmer) on to France, Suez, India, Hong Kong, San Francisco and other ports of call — at times accompanied by a beauteous Indian widow (Aouda, elegantly played by Alyson Scadron Branner), whom Fogg rescues from a funeral pyre.
Also along for the ride is Detective Fix (lively Bill Johns), a British copper convinced that Fogg is a criminal on the lam.
Andrew Litzky nimbly changes accents and nationalities, and everyone else (except Childers) juggles multiple cameo roles, too.
It’s too bad (but remediable) that this “Around the World in 80 Days” gets a rather slow start out of the gate. For the first 15 minutes or so it’s quite heavy-handed — too much shouting and mugging, with Johns and Branner the worst offenders. Some volume and gestural adjustment would make our immersion in Brown’s witty and propulsive adaptation that much smoother and quicker.
But once the show does get in the right gear, it gathers charm, suspense and mirth en route, as the fastidious Fogg and company bounce through India on an imaginary elephant, weather an invisible typhoon and tangle with a xenophobic cowboy (the drawling, ever-versatile Litzky) in America’s Wild West.
Brown’s script generally sticks with the itinerary that Verne’s original readers eagerly followed.
But the play also takes some cheerful digs at the Brits and lightly satirizes 19th-century notions about “exotic” parts of the world few Europeans had visited — except by vicariously following the true exploits of such travelers as George Francis Train, who made a similar trip in 80 days in 1870.
By the show’s exciting denouement (Will Fogg make it back to London in time, or a day late? Is he a criminal mastermind, or not?), the Taproot cast has become dandy travel companions. And the actors have been ably assisted by Mark Lund’s scenic design (minimal, but with a swell light-up map of the world), as well as the tongue-in-cheek sound design, the attractive period costumes by Sarah Burch Gordon and the good lighting by Monty Taylor.
Misha Berson: email@example.com