It has been said that “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Last night, on the stage at the Ahmanson, we saw definately proof of that: a group of four actors working together to provide not only that dying is easy, but that it can be very funny as well. Last night, we saw “The 39 Steps”.
The original “39 Steps” was a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The short version of the plot of that film, from IMDB, is “Richard Hannay is a Canadian visitor to London. At the end of “Mr Memory”‘s show in a music hall, he meets Annabella Smith who is running away from secret agents. He accepts to hide her in his flat, but in the night she is murdered. Fearing he could be accused on the girl’s murder, Hannay goes on the run to break the spy ring.”. You can find a more detailed summary of the film plot on Wikipedia.
This stage version of “The 39 Steps” is a comic farce interpretion of the movie. It takes the original mystery film, and puts the exact story onstage as if it was done by a group of four British actors at a cheap theatre. One actor takes the Richard Hannay role; one actress takes the three female lead roles (Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret)… and the other two men take all of the remaining over 150 roles from the film. Along the way, they throw in every Hitchcock cliche and reference you can think of, including names of every Hitchcock films and most of Hitchcock’s well known situations (such as the shower scene from Psycho and the airplane chase from North by Northwest). They even throw in a Hitchcock cameo!
Making this even more fun is the fact that they don’t do this in the sort of expensive production you’ve come to expect from Broadway these days. They do it on the cheap, using clever invention (such as rear projection, puppets, representational props) to make up for the all-too-common overdone show. Further, they make fun of their invention throughout the show. It is just a hoot to see farce like this done right, with perfect timing and cleverness. This is one production I expect to have a long life after the initial tour: it can easily be done by inventive companies.
The credit for this wonderful shows belongs in four main areas: writing, directing, acting, and technical. The original Hitchcock movie (based on the adventure novel “The Thirty-nine Steps” by John Buchan) was adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, who retained almost 60% of the films dialogue and an almost frame-by-frame preservation of the story, whilst working in additional jokes.
Making this story come alive was the the result of the inventive genius of original director Maria Aitken, as preserved by tour director Nevin Hedley, who brought this story to stage using only smoke, four trunks, three ladders, two doors, and a number of overworked actors. A good director is key to making the split-second timing that underlies farce work, and Aitken/Hedley does that.
Adding to this was the talent of the four actors: Claire Brownell (Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret); Ted Deasy (Richard Hannay), and Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson in the remaining 100+ male and female roles. These actors were having fun with their roles, and had their timings down. As I said at the start: comedy is hard work, and these four pour their hearts into it, getting it perfect. Although Deasy has square-jawed and square-persona-ed Hannay down, and Brownell suitably overplays the female roles (as is required by Hitch), the show is stolen by Hissom and Parkinson. These two become everything — so many characters I can’t remember them all, and at times even the actors can’t keep them straight (although that too may be an act). It is hilarious!
[All actors are members of Actors Equity ]
All of this is supported by the inventive technical side: Peter McKintosh’s sets and costumes and Kevin Adams’s lighting. To give you an idea of this inventiveness: a train is created through four overhead lights and four trunks; wind is created through movement of coats; stage doors have multiple sides to depict multiple rooms; overstuff chairs become beds; … you get the idea. It was just remarkable.
Rounding out the technical: the sound design was by Mic Pool. Original movement was by Toby Sedgwick, with additional movement by Christopher Bayes. Production stage management (which I’m sure was a job for this show) was by Harold Goldfaden, assisted by Sara Jaramillo. Stephen Gabis was the dialect coach. There were like four hundred producers listed in the program.
Oh, as for the title of this post: There’s a game called Traumfabrik, where one makes movies. One of the four-star directors is Hitchcock, and one of the potential movies is Bambi. It is so much fun to assign Hitch to Bambi. Just imagine what he would have done with the property.
Upcoming Theatre. Tonight sees us at the Steve Allen Theatre for the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” with Joe Bologna as St. Augustine of Hippo, Hayley DuMond as Empress Theodora, Keith Carradine as Thomas Jefferson, George Lazenby as Bertrand Russell, and Gary Cole as Steve Allen. Next weekend brings the Spring Dance Show (yes, nsshere is dancing) at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22). The last weekend in May brings the Bat Mitzvah of a family friend, as well as “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (May 30 @ 2pm). June starts with “Peter Pan” at Nobel Middle School (June 3-5) and the “One Acts Plays” at Van Nuys High (June 2-4) [again, nsshere is acting in the One Acts], as well as (pending ticketing) the legacy tour of Merce Cunningham at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. June 13 brings “South Pacific” at the Ahmanson, with the June “Meeting of Minds” on June 20. As for July, the month starts with “In The Heights” at the Pantages on July 3, and (pending ticketing) the Western Corps Connection in Riverside on July 5. The next weekend (July 10 @ 8pm) is the first show of the 2010-2011 Colony season, “Grace & Glorie”. That weekend may also bring “It’s Top Secret”, a musical that is part of the Festival of New American Musicals, running Jun 19-July 18 at the NoHo Arts Center (likely July 11). July will also bring ; “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at REP East on July 17 (pending ticketing); the July “Meeting of Minds on July 18, and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 24. Plus July will nat bring some ventures out to the Hollywood Bowl. Lastly, looking to August, we will hopefully find “Rent” at the Hollywood Bowl (pending ticketing); “Young Frankenstein” at the Pantages, the August “Meeting of Minds”, and “Side Man” at REP East.
As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.