Tread sans Dread: Stage West’s Sure-footed ‘The 39 Steps’

What is it with live stage comedy in Ft. Worth? There must be something in the water. When Ft. Worth based theatre companies produce dramas, they do fine work. When they take on comedy, they launch into supersonic dimension. Running through September 26, Stage West presents a fearlessly funny production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, adapted from the movie by Patrick Barlow. Tour de force, or tour de farce: if you worry that movies will make stage performance obsolete, here’s proof that just ain’t so.

I thoroughly enjoyed the national touring show production of The 39 Steps that came through in January 2010 under the auspices of the Dallas Summer Musicals and fit in so perfectly at Dallas’ historic Majestic Theatre. I could not imagine how a regional production could match the professionalism, the marvelous special effects, and the production values of this highly engaging, stylized, hyper-caffeinated tour. To my delight, Stage West’s production not only matches the quality of the touring show but surpasses it in many ways. And laugh? Seldom have I experienced a full house on a lazy Sunday afternoon so brimming over with exuberant mirth. This ‘comedy vaudeville’, a mere stage reflection of a classic movie, works better in the Stage West intimate space.

Here’s what I wrote about the touring show, which applies to Stage West’s performance as well: 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.

Yes, there are only four actors: two clowns and one each romantic male and female lead. Together they play close to one hundred different characters, with vastly different accents, ages, blocking, motivations and full costume, hat and wig changes. Most of the props and set pieces in the show are carried, or dragged, on and off by said same actors. Hand it to Stage West’s properties design team of Emily Frei, Josh Cain and Lynn Lovett for making it all look so easy, and so absolutely right, in every scene. The spare set design includes two fully operational, ornate opera boxes mounted upstage on either side of the space, from which characters lurk, plot intrigue and dangle in death throes, while conveying the real sense of a 19th century play house. (James Wolk, Jim Covault and Jason Domm) Sound design by the creative team of Dana Schultes and Justin Flowers adds a sensory dimension that fully compliments the whimsy and suspense that unfold lickety-split before an amazed audience’s eyes.

Director Jim Covault has a sixth sense for comic timing, and his talents truly shine here. His two clowns (spryly kinetic Mark Shum and ever droll Michael Corolla) never miss a beat or a physical moment or a line delivery or a comic punch as they careen along, sometimes trading places on stage as multiple characters in the span of less than a minute or two. Choreographed to their batting eyelashes, they are exhilarating to watch. Lee Trull, exploring an effete arched eyebrow and maximizing casual macho savoir-faire, is perfectly cast as the stuffy reluctant British protagonist, Richard Hannay, more of a cad than a gentleman, loveable in spite of himself. Playing against him (literally and figuratively) Cheryl Lowber makes a steamy femme fatale and an engagingly earnest heroine, who warms the half-frigid heartstrings of imperturbable Richard while sweeping the audience off its virtual feet as well.

Go ahead. Drink that magic water in Ft. Worth. Stage West’s production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps will slake your thirst for jolly good fun, high-dee-ho.

Through September 26, 2010. For tickets: http://www.stagewest.org

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