The 39 Steps’ – Mystery, mayhem and mirth at Ivoryton Playhouse in CT
By Tony Schillaci and Don Church
Here’s the perfect formula for a fun night in the theater: take a convoluted plot from an old Hitchcock movie, give it a dash of Monty Python, bung in a handful of funny hats and wigs, add four wildly talented actors with 150 wacky accents and voices, shake it all up with deft direction, pour it quickly on to the Ivoryton Playhouse CT stage and voila! - you’ve got the London West End hit The 39 Steps in tranquil Ivoryton, Connecticut through June 19.
This is a theater experience that will take you away from the strife of today’s relentless election grandstanding, Congressional warfare, out-of-control gun violence and tabloid-style headlines. That mayhem will be replaced for 100 delightful minutes with zany murder, madcap political satire, blustering Nazi spies and the titillating headlines of 1930’s England.
It’s low and high comedy vaudeville, Marx Brothers, silly silent movie and slapstick all rolled into one rollicking laugh-out-loud show. Highly recommend to those smart folks, and film fans, who possess a broad sense of humor.
This theatrical madness follows a man-on-the-run from London to Scotland, on trains and in motorcars, to farms and creepy old houses and right back to the London Palladium for a most surprising resolution.
Dashing, devilishly handsome and talented leading-man Dan Fenaughty plays Richard Hannay, an upper-crust Brit who feels that his life is quite boring. Dan gets the audience laughing in the first scene with witty direct-address dialogue. The joviality moves on to the stage of the London Palladium where a character named Mr. Memory is played to perfection by multi-talented Jonathan Brody. (He’s been a member of the Actor’s Equity Association for 33 years. All of the actors in this Ivoryton production of The 39 Steps are ‘Equity’ members.)
Playing master-of-ceremonies at the Palladium is David Edwards, a man-for-all-seasons who returns to the Ivoryton Playhouse for his third season. Playgoers will remember his brilliant direction of last summer’s South Pacific at Ivoryton. (He’s just been nominated for a Connecticut Critics Circle award as Best Director of a Musical for that show.) Both Brody and Edwards light up the stage in multiple parts- as underwear salesmen, policemen, train conductors, detectives, farmers, farmers wives, Nazis, Nazi’s wives, song and dance men and women, newspaper boys, doddering politicians and, of course, spies.
While all these characters appear and disappear, Mr. Fenaughty as Richard almost never leaves the stage. He runs, jumps, rolls, drives and hides without mussing his hair or rumpling his well-cut suit. This show is no place for amateur Thespians, and Mr. Fenaughty is no amateur, having played the role multiple times before with great success.
Larissa Klinger is stunningly gorgeous and comedically talented as the ‘love’ interest - in more ways than one - for Richard. She plays Annabella, Pamela and Margaret, giving each character a distinctive accent, attitude and look. Wig designer Elizabeth Cippollina has purposefully created slightly off-kilter hairstyles to match each of Ms. Klinger’s campy/vampy women. Costume Designer Cully Long deserves extra applause for inventively putting everyone in delightfully designed break-away clothing and accessories. Hence, the quick changes from one nutty character to another.
Mr. Fenaughty and Ms. Klinger have rubber legs and are able to master the complex movements that director Erik Bloomquist has created for them to drive the action and laughs from start to final curtain. Mr. Bloomquist keeps the pace fast, furious and the sight gags funny. He might have been a British Music Hall impresario in a previous life – so well does he understand and interpret the style and bits of business associated with successful comic English stage and film performances.
Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan has managed to use his all-purpose stage set and enhance it minimally with props, furniture, moveable doorways, hideaway beds, and hilarious shadow-puppet special effects that enable the actors to carry on without really breaking a leg. Those effects are enhanced by Marcus Abbott’s lighting that can switch from music hall bright to mysterious foggy night in a flash.
Production Stage Manager Randy Lawson keeps all the comings and goings, in and outs and prop movements perfectly timed so that each scene flies by in rapid succession. Tate R. Burmeister’s sound design incorporates musical themes from many Hitchcock films, and its fun to try to guess whether a haunting melody comes from "Vertigo," "Rear Window" or "Strangers on a Train."
The play is collaboration, billed as “from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock, from the novel by John Buchan and adapted by Patrick Barlow, licensed by ITV (UK) and an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.” Well done, all.
Executive/Artistic Director Jacqui Hubbard greeted the opening night audience:”When planning this season, I picked this play thinking ‘just 4 actors - this should be an easy one.’ Well, it’s been one of the hardest shows to do – and you’ll see why in just a few minutes.”
A hard show to do, perhaps, but the professional cast and crew make The 39 Steps look like a walk in Hyde Park. You’ll never be aware that they’re acting, because you’ll be roaring with laughter from one scene to the next.
At the opening night after party, one audience member remarked “Anyone who doesn’t like this show must be a Psycho!” A fitting last giggle for the first-night audience.
For tickets and show times visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org or phone the box office at 860-767-7318. The Ivoryton Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, Connecticut.
Published by examiner.com and other websites, June 6, 2016