The setup: If you're fans of some of the Valley's best theater artists, it's both delightful and reassuring when they get particularly good jobs like a gig with Arizona Theatre Company, which is a nice bump in pay, visibility, and production values. Around the World in 80 Days is our opportunity to see the work of several of our favorites in a smart, charming, slightly tongue-in-cheek stage adaptation of Jules Verne's classic-yet-popular novel.
See also: Jane Austen's Emma from Arizona Theatre Company Is Both Loyal and Funny
The execution: Playwright Mark Brown keeps the plot at a furious simmer by focusing on the perils faced by our heroes, Phileas Fogg (Mark Anders) and his servant Passepartout (Jon Gentry, from The Taming of the Shrew, Gray's Anatomy, a superlative production of Angels in America, and approximately every other Childsplay show since the decades-old company's founding), as they strive to circumnavigate the globe by newfangled railways and steamships. Not only are there connections to be made and missed, every character other than Fogg is played by one of the other four actors, a super-appropriate device that makes lightning-fast costume changes just another element of the pacey suspense.
Sometimes the exits and re-entrances are subtle theatrical magic, but a few of them are highlighted for comic effect. You might enjoy an interview with Brown and other fun stuff in ATC's guide to the play.
Other Valley pistons in this engine include director David P. Saar, whose genius is rarely accessible to audiences other than Childsplay's, and actors Yolanda London (A Wrinkle in Time, Hunter Gatherers), and Kyle Sorrell (Xanadu). Bob Sorenson, who plays London detective Fix, lived and worked here for many years but is now based in New York and gets to come perform for us a couple of times a year. Arizona kind of loves him, and he's especially engaging here as a cop not unlike The Fugitive's Samuel Gerard, though Fix's fortuitous helpfulness has a motive even more ulterior than the pursuit of justice.
Though Anders is Seattle-based, he's appeared in other ATC shows, all of which I happen to have missed. (He also plays a mean piano, apparently.) If he seems unwarrantedly familiar to you, as he did to me, it could be because he slips into Fogg's honorable, brainy, and stoic shoes so perfectly that it seems as though all noble and low-key heroes ought to be played by him. By the end, his chilly Fogg has evolved to cuddly in a way that you'd expect to take 80 days, and the trick was making it feel gradual in the compression of stage time.
Carey Wong's steampunky set is dynamically versatile and provides its own share of whimsy. Overall, the production's a cool blend of antique setting and progressive ideals, exotic opulence and streamlined presentation.
The verdict: Even if you don't follow our local artists' careers, the ones who helped craft this fun, fresh show all deserve to be working this level, and it's light and entertaining without slipping into frivolity.
Around the World in 80 Days continues through Sunday, April 13, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets start at $40.50; order seats here or call 602-256-6995.
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