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By Carolyn Hayes Harmer
Long-distance travel, even now with the benefit of jet engines, can be simultaneously arduous and thrilling. In centuries past, its hardships were certainly harder, and its novelty and danger made it all the more exciting. In this pioneering spirit, Meadow Brook Theatre opens its new season with a classic journey whose anxieties and elations remain undiminished by time. Under the direction of Travis W. Walter, the Michigan premiere of “Around the World in 80 Days” (adapted by Mark Brown from the Jules Verne novel) proves that the human zest for adventure is never out of date.
Wealthy Londoner Phileas Fogg (Rusty Mewha), advocate for mathematical precision in all things, stakes his savings in a wager with the chaps at the gentlemen’s club. As of 1872, with certain rail routes having been completed, a person could hypothetically circumnavigate the globe – by a combination of steam ships and trains – in a scant 80 days. But rather than argue whether the hypothetical is in this case attainable, Fogg would rather prove it personally. His spur-of-the-moment departure and expensive journey coincide with a high-profile bank robbery, raising suspicions that he may not be merely a thrill-seeking vanguard, but rather a fugitive as well. What follows is a whirlwind travelogue and chase narrative that makes “The Amazing Race” look like a weekend scavenger hunt.
As Fogg, Mewha plays straight as a laser level: a dour, unfailingly proper, ramrod-postured human line item. Yet what sounds like a lifeless choice is anything but; the actor strides confidently into his jokes, but generously plays the foil in counterpoint to the four supporting players who hold all the comic cards. The myriad characters most notably include Fogg’s verbose French manservant (Matthew Schwartz), an ever-thwarted detective (Ron Williams), an exotic damsel in distress (Kara Kimmer), and a blustery colonial-era brigadier general (Peter C. Prouty), but also extend to a whole string of variably competent service people and authorities as well as delicately stereotypical locals.
Yes, the source material dabbles in some Near and Far East cultural otherness and a Wild West standby that, by today’s standards, are troublesome. But as it can’t be avoided, the production (and costumer Liz Goodall) treads lightly on the potentially offensive ground, sidestepping literalism with loads of fancifully cut, bold fabrics and trims as well as performances that look beyond accent and custom to find their humor.
Key to Walter’s direction is pacing, which relies on lightning-quick line delivery to drive the immediacy of Fogg’s endeavor, but happily takes its time where funny business is concerned. The variable approach allows excitement and comedy to comfortably coexist, thanks in large part to highly stylized group mannerisms and delivery that cements the cast as a like-minded storytelling ensemble. Expository narration is also well deployed, divvied up between characters and smoothly integrated, even interacting with the audience and the main action in cheeky ways. This cast performs nimbly and synchronously across the board, although Schwartz’s patchwork jester, Passepartout, shines with piteous nuance and dazzling imagination that stands to make the character a viewer favorite.
The production design is inspired by steampunk, an emerging retro-futuristic movement whose fanciful sci-fi gadgets run on nothing but imagination, innumerable gears, and steam power. (The choice might feel derivatively trendy, except for Verne’s own work being a cornerstone influence of the genre.) And the yields are lush indeed: Jen Price Fick’s oxidized set design, complete with antique world map nestled into the round lip of the stage floor, is so full of trunks and velvet it could be mistaken for a magician’s secret back room. Beyond its breathless instrumental flourishes, sound design by Mike Duncan backs off from early tick-tocking prominence, finding ways to markedly enhance rather than force the action. Lighting cues (courtesy of designer Reid G. Johnson) come fast and furious, charting the passage of days, but also crystallizing a single narrative thread from diffuse story components. And all the while, innovations large and small overload on curiosity – from the cleverness of a simple card game, to impromptu conveyances, to reveals that are practically elephantine in scale.
The resulting “80 Days” is a conspicuously stagy staging that truly, repeatedly capitalizes on the form. Walter and company bring this lively voyage to life, infusing it not only with the excitement of an adventure story, but also with generous helpings of pure fun and laughter. For viewers in the mood for visual delights, the thrall of a good old story, or just plain onstage silliness, this show is well worth the trip.
‘Around the World in 80 Days’
Meadow Brook Theatre
2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester
2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, 22
8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8, 15, 22
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 16, 23
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, 17, 24
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 25
6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, 19, 26
6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, 12, 19
2 hours, 5 minutes