Bloody, Jolly Good Fun: The 39 Steps

Dallas audiences, are you ready for some bloody, jolly good fun? The national tour of twice Tony and Drama Desk winner The Thirty Nine Steps, adapted from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film thriller, blesses the Dallas Summer MusicalsMajestic Theatre with a fast, furious performance you won’t want to miss. A loose adaptation of the Hitchcock classic, it’s been a runaway hit in London’s West End since the mid-1990’s and premiered on Broadway in 2008.  It combines a rollicking thriller-romance script with vaudeville style comedy routines and Monty Python-esque farce enhanced by an overlay of highly sophisticated mime-like precision movement. Two acts’ worth of hilarity, madcap vaudeville, exotic accents, old-fashioned presentational romance, thrills, chills, classic movie nods and feats of sheer acting magic conspire to amuse and charm both novice and seasoned theatre-goers. A winner with a tight, witty script, the key to this play’s bright success is the many-faceted skills of four dynamic, indefatigable stage talents who perform it.

Ted Deasy, Claire Brownell as Richard and Pamela: photo by Craig Schwartz

Filling the stage with the presence, energy and substance of a large cast show, Claire Brownell, Ted Deasy, Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson demonstrate as an ensemble and individually why live theatre can offer a unique memorable experience to savor long after the final curtain rings down. With only rudimentary set elements to define the stage reality, sometimes a bare window frame or an overstuffed chair, a toted on Victorian lamppost, a set of handcuffs, or a line of steamer trunks, these four actors create multiple characters and define settings so clearly, so fast you marvel how they can possibly remember what’s next. A complex feat, superbly mastered. What fun,  just watch ‘em fly!

Ben Brantley, The New York Times, “Absurdly enjoyable!  This gleefully theatrical riff on Hitchcock’s film is fast and frothy, performed by a cast of four that seems like a cast of thousands.  The actors themselves seem to be having a helluva good time.  As does the audience.”

I met with three of the performers after viewing the show. All shared personal challenges and rewards in being part of the tour. A graceful Montana-bred beauty with cascades of auburn ringlets, peaches and cream complexion and direct, warm gaze, Claire Brownell, the female lead, exudes the poised confidence of a talented youthful artist at ease with her considerable accomplishment.  Yet she’s respectful of the over-arching artistic worth of the work. Fresh from the Broadway production, she finds the touring experience illuminating. Even though she feels she knows her three totally different characters “in her bones”, she finds that each new town’s house makes the performance feel fresh. She’s amazed how willingly the audiences embrace the show’s unique concept and welcome the chance to laugh heartily. She tosses her curls, “We ALL need to laugh more!” Suddenly serious, she describes valuing The 39 Steps as a show that promotes ‘culture for the future’ as it is as easily understood and enjoyed by young children as by adults. Brownell creates her characters with distinctive style and conviction. Her first character, Annabella Schmidt, is a femme fatale, a Mata Hari sophisticate swathed in a svelte black dress replete with ominous black wig, spouting dialogue in heavily accented patois. Every syllable she speaks is clear and distinct, amazingly comprehensible to the audience. She delivers her lines with a Garbo-like deadpan sincerity that makes the male lead’s inability to understand her hilarious. “Zere were zeese men in ze seatre trang to zhoot me, ZHOOT me!” she laments to a befuddled Richard Hanny, the lead man played with patrician Jeeves-like diffidence by Ted Deasy. With the help of venerable dialect coach Stephen Gabis, her fantasy accent, with German, Russian, Italian, Slovakian and pure invention overtones, becomes one of the most memorable aspects of her character. Brownell finds the boudoir scene her second character, perky blonde Pamela, plays while handcuffed at the wrist to Richard, her favorite and most challenging. “Most of the show is stylized and presentational, very theatrical; suddenly we have this intimate, almost real moment where the audience gets to sympathize with the hint of a blossoming romance.” At the same time, maintaining the scene’s frenetic comic pace and tension (rolling on and off the bed and Richard’s lap, hurtling around the room) while avoiding injury from the handcuffs has proven a challenge. “It’s completely choreographed, but it still has to look fresh and alive; so there’s risk.” The scene comes off with spontaneous charm and perfectly controlled timing.

Erik Hissom and Scott Parkinson play the myriad of other characters in the show, a Greater Tuna-like fruit-basket turnover of personas, fleshed out with a high degree of conceptual, playful physicality. Man #1, Florida-based actor Erik Hissom, laments, “I’m too old to do all this!”, to which Chicago-bred Scott Parkinson (Man #2) shakes his head and scoffs, “No way, man.” Both actors, with extensive professional stage credentials, are particularly well versed in performing Shakespeare, which they feel helps to inform and support the complex interplay of their closely allied characterizations in The 39 Steps. Parkinson says he thought the play looked difficult at first viewing in New York; the original actor in his role in the Broadway cast (Arnie Burton) told him it was the “hardest thing I’ve ever performed.” Both gleefully admit they relish the nightly onslaught of tightrope paced ensemble work. “Toughest parts are the Mr. Memory scenes,” reflects Hissom;” it’s a vaudeville interlude, a play within the play, where we ask an imaginary audience to pose questions to Mr. Memory.” “And sometimes the live audience jumps in with questions, not supposed to happen…!” Parkinson rolls his eyes in feigned alarm.

Eleven months from now when their tour wraps up, all four actors will have a cart-full of unforgettable memories and a most distinguished achievement to add to their resumes. Come on out, Dallas, and give the sterling production of The 39 Steps your most enthusiastic welcome. Standing Ovation? It’s richly deserved.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is adapted by Patrick Barlow, directed by Maria Aitken and features sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh.  The production is based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and on the book by John Buchan. It features lighting by Kevin Adams and sound by Mic Pool. The dialect coach was Stephen Gabis.  Toby Sedgwick created original movement with additional movement by Christopher Bayes.

Dallas Summer Musicals, presented by Comerica Bank, presents the comedy vaudeville through January 31 at The Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm Street in Dallas.  Tickets, priced from $15-$71, are on sale now at The Box Office, 542 Preston Royal Shopping Center, or area Ticketmaster outlets including The Majestic Theatre Box Office.  Tickets are also available by calling 214-631-ARTS (2787) or online at www.ticketmaster.com.  For groups of 10 or more, call 214-426-GROUP

For more information, see www.39StepsOnBroadway.com.

Visit the Dallas Summer Musicals website at www.dallassummermusicals.org, or call (214) 421-5678.

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One thought on “Bloody, Jolly Good Fun: The 39 Steps

  1. Pingback: KERA Art&Seek Blog » Thursday Morning Roundup

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