A phrase that many people use, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” is one that can apply to all sorts of men and women.
Take, for example, Phileas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days. As depicted in the San Diego premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, he might appear reserved, stone-faced and unenthusiastic about life. Once audiences get to know him, however, they’ll soon realize that he’s actually a very kind and caring man.
Based on Jules Verne’s famous adventure novel, the 19th-century Londoner (Richard Baird) lives an ordinary and conventional existence. During a meeting at the Reform Club, he comes up with a risky plan that surprises the members.
For twenty thousand pounds, the protagonist bets everyone at the club that he will travel around the entire planet in 80 days. After the rules of the bet are approved, Phileas and his valet, Jean Passerpartout (Omri Schein) begin their quest. Causing some trouble for them is the clueless Detective Fixx (Loren Lester) who is convinced that Phileas is a criminal.
Mark’s Brown’s adaptation is very strong, but I’d like to bring up a small observation from the early part of the staging. The first 15 minutes of the play feature plenty of narration and discussions about Phileas’ wager, which results in the opening sequences being slowly paced.
Once Phileas starts to get ready for his trip, however, the rendition picks up speed. Neither Phileas or Jean act like the typical traveling type, making their behavior on their journey all the more amusing.
Baird and Schein are a fun comedic team with interesting differences and similarities in their portrayals of Verne’s heroes. Phileas, as played by Baird, is dignified and proper, while Jean, as played by Schein, is goofy and talkative.
What they both have in common is a sense of loyalty to those that they care about. Phileas is generous to others he encounters and his attendant remains faithful even when their friendship is tested.
With the exception of Baird, the cast members portray more than one character. Lester, Will Vought and Lovlee Carroll all take part in very funny interactions with the two stars over the course of the evening.
Written by Brown and directed by Allison Bibicoff, the comedy is as laugh-out-loud as it is deadpan. Slapstick and character-based humor add to the appeal of the production.
Bibicoff is given the difficult task of creating a distinct atmosphere for each location. Her incorporation of Holly Gillard’s props, Kimberly DeShazo’s costumes and Dave Mickey’s audio transport theatregoers to nearly every part of the world.
What’s also interesting are the creative ways Bibicoff gets the stars to physically move throughout the play. Bibcoff’s experience as a choreographer shows in exaggerated movements where nearly everything from walking to sitting is theatrically stylized.
Rather than providing plenty of scenery, Marty Burnett designs his set as a large map of the world. Some of the actors, particularly, Carroll, interact with the map in a clever manner.
Another unconventional element is how Matt Novotny uses intimate lighting for brief humorous asides, particularly from Fixx. Each of these moments are witty and never become distracting or repetitive.
Plenty of good messages for kids and adults are shared ranging from doing the right thing to seizing the moment. There is a fascinating theme Brown includes, inspired by Verne, about people from different cultures working together to achieve a common goal.
The British Phileas, the French Jean and an Indian princess, Aouda (Carroll) eventually become a surrogate family of sorts. This point isn’t delivered in a heavy-handed way by Bibicoff or Brown. The devotion of the protagonists can be felt by how they act towards each other.
Well cast and with an epic quality, Around the World in 80 Days is chock-full of laughs and moments of visual wonder. Travel addicts and introverts alike shouldn’t miss this upbeat take on Verne’s classic book.