MAGNA — The Empress Theatre has chosen an interesting season this year. 2014’s first production, Around the World in 80 Days, is the North American premiere of this particular adaptation. Written by the British team Piers Chater Robinson and Chris Blackwood, who are known for their adaptations of classic stories like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, this particular show was just released in November of 2013. The Empress Theatre is a very fun venue to attend a show in. It is a renovated older theatre, and the staff is extremely hospitable. I was quite pleased as I was escorted to my seat as the usher asked me about my day, and where I would travel if I were to go around the world. The show began with a very entertaining introduction by one of the staff, full of humor and comfort.
The story follows the classic Jules Verne novel of the same name. The main character, Phileas Fogg (played by Geoffrey Gregory) as he makes a bet with the members of his gentlemen’s club that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Accompanied by his servant Passepartout (played by Jeff Erickson), the plot revolves around the adventures Fogg faces in his attempt. They are also pursued by Inspector Fix (played by Josh Astle), who believes Mr. Fogg is a criminal. In their journeyings Fogg and Passpartout rescue Mrs. Aouda (played by Rossy Thrall) who accompanies them for the rest of their journey.
The first thing I noticed about the show was the costumes. Because the locations of the plot are so varied, there is ample opportunity to have fun and variety in the costumes. The costume team consisted of Amy Burton, Michele Brown, Melissa Buxton, Carrie Johnson, Rachel Rasmussen, Becky Walk, and Jake Anderson. Though I imagine the costume budget must have been tight, I commend the team for making the effort to make sure the importance of portraying the different locations was manifested through the costumes.
The show itself was quite fun and light-hearted, though I confess it took me a few scenes to understand that. I had approached the show from the expectation of it being more of a dramatic telling of the story, so I felt some disconnect with the first two musical numbers. However, during the third number, “I Always Get My Man”, performed masterfully by Astle, it was finally evident to me that this show was definitely a comedy, and I was much more connected to the performance. Astle proved to be extremely skilled in comedic timing, and had me in stitches by the end of that song. In act two, Astle sings a duet, “I’m Stuck With You,” with Erickson, which was just one shining example of how both of these gentlemen played well off each other. Also, Erickson should be complimented for both his amusing French accent as well as his comedic skip in his step. His signature walk each time he came on the stage was quite endearing.
Gregory was impressively calm and cool-headed, an interesting character choice for Phileas Fogg. As others panicked and reacted to situations, Fogg remains so calm that it leads to amusement. One of the best touches was when the cast is portraying a ship rocking back and forth, the entire cast is moving about the stage as if they are nearly falling over, yet Mr. Gregory is barely swaying. The show is full of many moments such as that, showing the excellent attention to detail that director Jake Anderson has. Gregory also has a lovely voice, and I was surprised to see in the program that this is his first musical role. His voice is as strong as many seasoned veterans, and I hope he continues to portray musical characters.
Rossy Thrall played a lovely, exotic Mrs. Aouda, and was a welcome addition to the traveling team. Though her part is relatively small in the first act, she truly shines in the second act. One of the best moments of the show is the song “That’s Reason to Rejoice,” where many of the cast, led by Elder Hitch (played by Michael Thrall) come on to the train to attempt to convert people to the joys of Polygamy in 1800’s Utah. Rossy Thrall has an excellent moment where she gets to slap Michael Thrall in the face, something that made me wonder if she may have just enjoyed a little too much. Rossy Thrall also gets to show off her ability to sing in a powerful, gospel type way in that song. Additionally, there is a great cast of little children that play different roles throughout the show, and the touch is one that seemed to truly please the audience. Many of them had been assigned small speaking parts, all of which had been done with precision.
Overall, the production team and staff worked tirelessly and put together an excellent production. Being a relatively new show, I felt that the actual material, script, and songs need some polishing. However, it was an entertaining evening, and the skill of everyone involved certainly produced the best show they could with the material provided.