(*homocinematically inclined)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reverend’s Reviews: Around the World with the Fab Five

It is hard to imagine Jules Verne’s classic 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days, with its globe-trotting storyline and cast of thousands, being effectively adapted for the stage.  It’s even harder to imagine a meager cast of five actors assaying all the adventure tale’s characters.  Playwright Mark Brown and Long Beach’s International City Theatre (ICT) haven’t only taken both of these unexpected routes but have succeeded near-brilliantly with them.

The plot is fairly well-known, if not from actually reading Verne’s novel than from one of several movie or TV versions, most notably Mike Todd’s Oscar-winning 1956 production.  Punctuality-obsessed British gentleman Phileas Fogg accepts a wager that he can travel completely around the globe in 1,920 hours — if not less following his departure from London.  He takes with him his newly-hired manservant Passepartout, and together they navigate a route utilizing a combination of trains, steamer ships and even elephants (though not hot air balloon, which Todd’s film added).  The pair encounter a detective who suspects Fogg of being a thief, religious cultists, a pretty Indian princess with whom the impenetrable Fogg becomes semi-smitten, a rootin’-tootin’ cowboy and marauding Apaches in the prairies of the US, and a variety of other residents of the countries through which they travel.

ICT’s fantastically talented cast of five brings approximately 40 of these characters to vivid life during the play’s 135-minute running time.  Jud V. Williford is appropriately taciturn throughout as Fogg, whereas Michael Uribes primarily plays Passepartout but also a number of supporting roles.  As the lone female, Melinda Porto naturally plays Princess Aouda while also portraying a comical variety of other female and male parts.  Mark Gagliardi, who is well-known in southern California as the current Genie in Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular at Disney's California Adventure, proves himself an accomplished master not only of physical comedy but of a diversity of international accents.  Rounding out the cast is Brian Stanton, very funny as the wily-in-his-own-mind detective tracking Fogg and any number of other roles.  On opening night, Stanton and Gagliardi brought the house down with hilarious improv when one of Stanton's mutton chops fell off mid-scene.

This Los Angeles area production was directed by Allison Bibicoff, who served as Assistant Choreographer and Associate Producer of Broadway's Tony-nominated Xanadu.  Her playful spirit gives the production a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach; it would seem the script could be performed most seriously as well.  Bibicoff and set designer Staci Walters here employ an ingenious wall depicting Fogg's trip route that also contains hidden drawers and a series of Laugh In-like windows through which props appear and characters speak.  The period-perfect costumes were designed by ICT resident Kim DeShazo.

Splendid entertainment for adults, teens and school-age children, Around the World in 80 Days runs in Long Beach through February 17th.  To purchase tickets or for more information, visit the International City Theatre website.

Meanwhile, another, real-life “Fab Five” is currently making an appearance on the considerably larger stage of LA’s Ahmanson Theatre, where Backbeat is having its US premiere through March 1st.  Based on Iain Softley’s 1994 movie about the formational years of The Beatles, it is an uneven, occasionally inert production (especially during the first act) but not without its merits.  These are primarily the excellent quintet of young actor-musicians who play the five founding members of what would become one of the world’s greatest bands: Andrew Knott, as domineering ringmaster John Lennon; Daniel Healy, possessed of a lovely singing voice, as Paul McCartney; Daniel Westwick as George Harrison; Oliver Bennett as drummer Pete Best, who would find himself dumped in favor of Ringo Starr; and Nick Blood (cool, toned and shirtless as often as possible) as Stuart Sutcliffe, an aspiring painter who left The Beatles just as the band's fame was exploding in 1962 and tragically died shortly after of a brain hemorrhage.

Backbeat is essentially constructed around a speculative love triangle between Sutcliffe, Lennon and Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer with whom Sutcliffe did become romantically involved.  The more speculative part is the depth of Lennon's feelings for his longtime best friend, although Lennon's widow Yoko Ono would remark that "hardly a day went by that John did not talk about (Sutcliffe)."  Leanne Best, as Kirchherr, has little to do in the role other than be the camera-toting woman who came between the two erstwhile artist-friends, but then character development isn't this show's strong suit when it comes to virtually all the pop-culture figures portrayed.  Any younger viewers with little advance knowledge of The Beatles' members will likely wonder what all the fuss was about.

The book by Softley and Stephen Jeffreys covers the three-year period during which the boys groomed their sound and, eventually, themselves between Liverpool, London and "decadent" nightclubs in Hamburg.  The second of these German clubs provides the show with some needed style and diversity, populated as it is with drag queens and kings, a leather-suited gay dancer, and a tuxedoed, Cabaret-esque MC.  Five-time Tony Award nominee David Leveaux directs the proceedings with some visual flair, high decibels during the songs and, in Act II, some heavy-handed but nonetheless welcome emotional wallops that the first act sorely lacks.

Songs from The Beatles catalog comprise the show's score, including such classics as "Love Me Do", "She Loves You", "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Twist and Shout".  If the volume is more often than not excessive, I appreciated the free-wheeling feel and lack of obvious choreography during the musical moments.  Those who go to see Backbeat expecting an upbeat "Jukebox musical" crafted on Beatles songs will likely be disappointed.  There's some "dark night of the soul" stuff going on here when it comes to the conflicts that can arise among friends/lovers who are simultaneously heeding the call to be artists, all played out against a frequently seedy backdrop.  By the time band manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin enter the picture in Act II, one may understandably conclude that The Beatles sold their souls to the devil.  Thankfully, this show's talented cast members don't have to do so.

For more information about Backbeat or to purchase tickets for the LA production, visit the Center Theatre Group website.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Around the World in 80 Days: A-
Backbeat: B-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.

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