John Viars, in his director’s notes for “Around the World in 80 Days,” says he’s sorry his show doesn’t have a balloon. The balloon was a feature of the 1956 movie, and the Playhouse actually uses one in its ads. Still, I don’t think Viars has to apologize. His choreography keeps things buoyant and busy and allows us a few eye-popping vistas.
The show travels light. As conceived by Marc Brown, an actor as well as a writer, it sets everyone loose in the wardrobe room. Just five people — four men and one woman — take on 39 roles. The way they pop in and out, they might be airborne after all. The player called “Actor 5,” however, confines himself to just one part, that of Phileas Fogg — the man who travels so far, so fast.
At the Playhouse, Eric Olson handled the role. New to Des Moines, but with stage experience, he gets the look right. He’s a bulldog, all chest and jaw. He delivers a number of sight gags — especially with his bottomless wallet — yet even as he pays, Olson maintains propriety: veddy British. Better still, in a couple later scenes with the Parsi woman Aouda, he softens. Naturally, Olson gets help from Kate Fitzgerald, as the love interest. She switches off well between demurely dropping her head and boldly meeting his look.
In the early going, though, Olson and the others take a while to settle into farcical rhythm. The central gimmick may be all about quick changes, but the right feel has more to do with bounce than speed. Jason Rainwater, as Fogg’s servant Passepartout (a rough translation would be “slips in everywhere”), handles his opening material mechanically. The same stiffness afflicts Olson when Fogg places his momentous wager, the reason for the runaround.
The fellow-gentlemen of London’s Reformers Club refuse to believe a man can circle the globe so quickly. Yes, these are modern times — 1872. Yes, the last few years have seen technological breakthroughs, like unsinkable steamships and intercontinental railways. Such gadgetry was inspiration enough for Jules Verne, the author of the novel. He didn’t need a balloon.
Still, at the Playhouse what matters more is the human lubrication, the chuckle-worthy timing of the give and take. The first jokes to really land are the physical business, such as when Kate Fitzgerald, in a turn as a man, silently mouths obscenities. Then Rainwater hits his stride. Working in Frenchified English, Passepartout gets off nifty puns. When he wins over the Apaches, he boasts: “They made me a chef!”
In the later going, too, we get the best visual effects. The company worked with a New York designer, Caite Kemp, and she pulled off some marvelous shape-shifting. The elephant, fallback transportation across India, proves part carpet shop, part Tin Man. Then there’s the bit where a train leaps the Mississippi….
Overheard in the Lobby: Des Moines Performing Arts has added extra shows of “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man,” at the Temple. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.