It’s called Around the World in 80 Days at Lamb’s Players Theatre, but it should be called Around the World in Two Hours. That’s how long (or not so long) it takes to tell Jules Verne’s sprawling 1873 story of Phileas Fogg’s trans-global quest. It’s a whirlwind telling, with change of scenery that’s more imaginary than real, and almost no props (save a very inventive “elephant” and a snow sledge that swings like a pendulum).
Laura Eason’s adaptation of Verne’s novel and Lamb’s Artistic Director Robert Smyth’s staging must get props for ambition: London, Dover, Calais, Brindisi, Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Yokohoma, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York all on one stage. But the story is very earnest and light as gossamer, with an impeccably confident Fogg (Lance Arthur Smith) upstaged by his more frantic but likable valet Passepartout (Bryan Barbarain) and a Snidely Whiplash (minus the mustache twirl) of a Scotland Yard man (Jon Lorenz) who keeps turning up like a bad penny. Kaja Amado Dunn is sweetness personified as the Indian girl rescued from a funeral pyre, and though her character and Smith’s Fogg enjoy no particular chemistry, you just know they’re going to end up together.
It’s difficult to place much emotional investment in any of the adventures that comprise this episodic around-the-world trek. As soon as something seems to be at stake in one of the exotic locales, our heroes and heroine are snatching their suitcases, kicking up their heels and on their way again, racing to catch a coach, a train or a boat. (At least they don’t have to race to catch the elephant – they just negotiate to buy the beast.) If the pacing feels hurried, you can hardly blame director Smyth or the cast members – after all, Verne had 37 chapters to tell this tale.
The played-straight show could use much more tongue in cheek and tendency to spoof, as it does with a clever “Star Trek” reference in Act 2 and a running joke about absent balloons (you’ll have to be there). Jackie Chan tried to have fun with this story in a 2004 film and flopped. At least Lamb’s has that turkey beat, and you don’t have to sit through 80 days of movie previews beforehand.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat