SANDY — The more local theatre I see in Utah (and around the country), the more convinced I am that each theatre company has something special and unique to offer. Where one gives intimacy and a strong community spirit, another gives grand productions that dazzle and amaze. Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy is definitely in the latter category (and the prices match!), but the quality of the storytelling does not always match the awe and spectacle of their large theatrical experiences. Fortunately, their latest show, Jules Verne‘s Around the World in 80 Days, showcases the Hale’s best attributes, tells a strong story, and makes something unique and exciting that should entice audiences of all ages.
Around the World… is, of course, based on the novel by Jules Verne with an adaptation by Laura Eason and a new original score by Rob Gardner. This is not a musical, but music does play a role in moving the story forward and providing a background for the extensive dance and aerial performances. A lot of credit must go to director Dave Tinney, who manages to balance so many different elements — the actors, dancers, aerialists, visual effects such as projections, elaborate costumes and much more — and make them all flow well.
With so much going on, it is perhaps helpful the story is actually quite simple. Set in the Victorian era, the story follows a man named Phileas Fogg (played with nerdy energy by Kelton Davis), who makes a bet with fellow businessmen that circumnavigate the globe in 80 days — a feat his colleagues believe is impossible. Fogg, however, is full of moxie and confidence and bets his entire fortune that he can do it. The script gives no hint for his motivations for making such an ambitious bet. He just thinks he can do it, and so he does.
Early on, the audience is also introduced to Fogg’s mime-like valet Mr. Passepartout (a name the characters frequently get wrong, with iterations such as Mister “Passport,” “Pass-Go,” and other mispronunciations.) Ryan Simmons plays Passepartout and was probably the most engaging performer among the lead actors. Simmons’s performance is definite reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and in San Francisco, there is even a whole section with title cards projected on the screen like a silent movie.
In addition to the visit to San Francisco, the characters also pass through Victorian versions of Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, and more. I was pleased to find that these international locations and cultures were handled carefully and respectfully. Indeed, all the casting appeared to be ethnically and racially accurate for each location.
Around the World in 80 Days features one of the most impressive dance ensembles I have seen in Utah in some time. There are six aerialists credited in the program, but the stage was often full of dancers and performers using an array of circus apparatuses, including silks, harnesses, trampolines, dance trapeze, hand balancing canes, and more. In the Japan segment, the ensemble employed a German Wheel, which is like a giant ball the performer is strapped to that rolls along creating a near-gyroscope effect. Each nation also features unique choreography and dance styles, such as the ancient Indian martial artform of kalaripayattu for fight scenes there and Batusi-inspired dance in Egypt. There are so many people involved to successfully execute the movement in this play, but choreographer Lindsey D. Smith, aerial choreographer Ramsi Nia Stoker and fight choreographer Derek Smith have helmed a team that created a truly special experience.
A huge shout-out also has to go to costume designer Joy Zhu, who not only gave Fogg and Passepartout the right amount of visual whimsy for their roles (especially with a particularly tall top hat for Fogg). Additionally, the many dresses for Mrs. Auoda were dazzling, and Amishi Rohaj stunned in all of her looks. With the outfits for the aerialists, Zhu captures the steampunk aesthetic appropriate for 21st century take on Jules Verne, and these costumes contributed to the impression that the performers’ movement was a great piece of visual human art.
Scenic designer Kacey Udy and the automation team found innovative uses of the stage in each section of the voyage. Whether creating a giant boat that sways back and forth in a storm, an elephant in India, the large elaborate puppets and giant trampoline in Japan, Udy never failed to surprise and excite with each new set piece.
Around the World in 80 Days is not a show to see for the plot. It is a very simple tale. Instead, this play is worth seeing for the spectacle, and that is usually where Hale Centre Theatre shines. They do big, bold, and creative better than anyone else in the valley, and this production is among their best. Around the World in 80 Days is a chance to see a circus, an acrobatic show, a dance performance, and a play all in one. I highly recommend booking a passage on this trip around the world. It is a grand adventure!