In the back of any Richmond Hill Barn Theatre program, you'll find a chronological listing of which shows have been produced at the theatre over its past 40 seasons. And while this catalog of titles is nothing if not varied, the assorted comedies, dramas, thrillers, and such do share a common link: Not one of these plays is one you'd feel compelled to attend with young kids in tow. (The Barn did house the holiday comedy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in 2007, but that was a bonus offering added to the venue's annual six-show lineup and isn't mentioned in the program's inventory.)
Maybe, then, it was just force of habit - or the fact that it was a school night - that kept children away from Thursday's Richmond Hill presentation of Around the World in 80 Days, playwright Mark Brown's family adventure based on Jules Verne's literary classic. (The youngest patrons in attendance appeared to be the three twentysomethings sitting in the row ahead of me.) But here's hoping that word-of-mouth spreads on this charming, inventive, and utterly delightful production, because kids should positively eat it up, and it's inconceivable that their adult chaperones will feel at all slighted. Like the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's recent Peter Pan, director Jennifer Kingry's comedy is that rare stage piece that appeals to the child in all of us, only instead of flying effects, we're given an elephant fashioned out of a table, a stool, and a length of cloth - and that's meant as the highest of praise.
There are plenty of treats on hand in this 80 Days: laughs big and small, witty costumes by designer/co-star Mary Bouljon, an endearing five-person cast enacting 30-plus roles between them. Know up-front, however, that one thing you won't be treated to is any semblance of a hot-air balloon. As Brown states in the program's author notes, "The film had a balloon. It's what everyone remembers. But there's no balloon in the book and there's no balloon in this show. So if you've come to see a trip around the world in a balloon, get out of your seat right now and demand your money back." (In a priceless touch, Brown's notes are followed by Kingry's, in which she implores, "Don't listen to the author. Easy for him to say 'Get up and leave' - we've already paid his royalties.")
I promise you won't miss the balloon. From the show's first moments, with the travelers' worldwide trek mapped out through an ingenious lighting effect, to its last, with the great John VanDeWoestyne delivering welcome news in drag, airborne transport would clearly be superfluous; this 80 Days carries you aloft on gusts of inspiring cleverness and blissful silliness. The simple storyline - in which stuffy Brit Phileas Fogg (Greg Bouljon) accepts an 1872 challenge to circle the earth - is little more than a pretext for numerous high-comic misadventures, and the intentionally low-rent fun proves (if such proof is still needed) that no amount of technical accoutrements can provide the joy that results from vivid theatrical imagination. Watching Richmond Hill's latest, you oftentimes feel as happily carefree as a six-year-old playing Cowboys & Indians - and that's before the actors, here, actually do play Cowboys & Indians.
Brown's script is a dandy little compression of Verne's novel, filled with visual and verbal gags, and boasting running narration in which characters routinely break the fourth wall to comment on their globe-trotting experiences. (Chris White, portraying Fogg's French assistant Passepartout, gets the funniest of these asides.) I'm guessing, though, that the credit for this production's most hysterical bits belongs to Kingry - unless, that is, Brown's stage directions also find the reference to Liverpool followed by the opening guitar chord for the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night." Like that divinely anachronistic aural joke, many of 80 Days' best moments are so quick, and so unexpected, that the laughs practically come with a built-in double take, and Kingry's actors fit perfectly with the show's genial, offhanded loopiness.
As the unflappable Fogg, Greg Bouljon delivers throwaway witticisms from under his breath and earns laughs without ever noticeably altering his controlled deadpan; he's a lovably stoic stick-in-the-mud. (Told, somewhat inaccurately, that he's "a man of heart," Fogg sighs and responds, "Well ... when I have time.") Bouljon's wife Mary doesn't get a lot to do in her sizable role as the rescued human sacrifice Aouda, but she provides a couple of wonderfully sweet character turns early on - offering a great, quick bit as an apologetic newsie - and Adam Overberg provides more than a dozen expert character turns, scoring especially with his ship's captain, his Chinese opium peddler, and his easily provoked cowpoke. ("Take that, Apaches!" Overberg exclaims during 80 Days' Wild West shootout. "Go back to your own country!")
With his exaggerated French accent that brings to mind delightful memories of Peter Sellers, White's Passepartout is a continual hoot, simultaneously the production's most nutty stereotype and the most levelheaded character in sight. And while his brief, bewigged Monty Python bit would've been more than enough to send his fans home happy, VanDeWoestyne precedes this appearance with nearly two hours of infectious goofiness as the dogged Cockney, Detective Fix. More than anything, it was his portrayal that made me miss the absence of kids in the crowd, who no doubt would've giggled long and loud at Fix's ever-growing comic exasperation - though the giggles of the adults in attendance easily made up for the loss.
There were, to be sure, some bumpy patches in Thursday's performance, as the frequent locale shifts resulted in occasional, slightly awkward pauses, and there was just enough stumbling over lines for it to be mildly distracting. (A few accents also came and went; at one point, amusingly, VanDeWoestyne's Cockney sing-song momentarily vanished and returned as a Southern drawl.) But even during its hiccups, Around the World in 80 Days' high spirits and inventiveness never waned, and there were always big laughs to be had. I wouldn't dream of spoiling Kingry's biggest ones, but allow me to praise her for the most entertaining train ride from Iowa to New York imaginable, and to thank her for recognizing that no matter the century, Law & Order's signature DUN-dun!!! music cue is always funny.
For tickets and information, call (309)944-2244 or visit RHPlayers.com.