It takes craftiness to dramatize an 80-day trip around the world on a theater stage. New Village Arts has plenty of that, using little more than costume changes, various countries’ flags, and a few modest props to create the illusion that adventurer Phileas Fogg is trekking by train, ship, and even elephant to and through lands including India, Hong Kong, Japan and the U.S. All to get back to London in time to win a bet. Craftiness and misadventures aside, the whirlwind trip (if you can call a two and a half hour show a whirlwind) becomes wearying. But NVA”s new production of “Around the World in 80 Days,” based on Jules Verne’s novel, is a musical. The North County duo the Shantyannes composed more than a dozen tunes for the show which definitely inject some life into its familiar story.
Those tunes are performed onstage but inconspicuously by a band clad as pirates: Kyle Bayquen, Andrew Snyder, Trevor Mulvey, Nobuko Kemmotsu and conductor/keyboardist Tony Houck. While most of the lyrics serve strictly expository purposes, the music is jaunty and much in the spirit of the not-very-serious story. At New Village, choreographer Jenna Ingrassia-Knox keeps the young cast always on the move, and director Kristianne Kurner employs a likable ensemble (Rae Henderson, Alexander X Guzman, Jasmine January and Olivia Pence) to advance the narrative, sing choruses and portray multiple characters.
Of the principals, Frankie Alicea-Ford is well suited as Fogg, the main character but one whose demeanor of smug confidence almost never wavers. AJ Knox does well by the bumbling, hardly menacing Fogg adversary, Inspector Fix. Farah Dinga is beguiling as Aouda, the Indian woman saved by Fogg from a fatal sacrificing. As Passepartout, Fogg’s valet, Audrey Eytchison boasts boundless energy but ultimately irritates more than entertains.
Projections behind the actors aren’t vivid enough to be especially memorable, leaving the flags and costumes and fake mustaches to convey changes in locale. For sheer holiday escapism and a stocking full of silliness, “Around the World in 80 Days” is a fitting diversion, and it runs through Dec. 22.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/11/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat