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STAGE REVIEW : ’80 Days'--Not Quite a Winner in the Big Race

Times Theater Critic

The La Jolla Playhouse’s musical version of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” honors its source. It’s all over the map.

Time doesn’t pass slowly in “80 Days,” a big show that wouldn’t mind at all journeying to Broadway, as did La Jolla’s “Big River.” There is a lot of scenery to applaud (Douglas Schmidt was the designer), and the story keeps you hopping (Snoo Wilson did the book, with songs by Ray Davies).

Two men are trying to beat the clock here. Phileas Fogg (Timothy Landfield) must get back to England’s Reform Club via Hong Kong in 80 days in order to win his famous bet, while his creator, Jules Verne (Stephen Bogardus), must finish his novel in the same period in order to feed his starving family.

But the spectator does not find his heart beating twice as fast as the double deadline approaches. This is not because we’re out of sympathy for our two heroes, who seem deserving enough chaps. (They are also strong singers, particularly Bogardus. He could step into the lead of “Les Miserables” tomorrow, which would let him drop that lousy French accent.)

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But the approach seems terribly intellectualized. Director Des McAnuff has said that this may be the world’s first deconstructivist musical. It isn’t. Edward Albee took the same tack with Holly Golightly in the ill-fated “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” years ago, trying to make her a character in a writer’s imagination. What Albee couldn’t do was to connect the author and the character, and that’s the problem here.

The scene of the play is both the great big world and Verne’s poor little study, two images that a stage designer can juxtapose nicely, at least if he’s as witty a designer as Schmidt. The moment when the pyramid glides by Verne’s window is a superb throw-away.

We are meant to get a similar effect as Verne becomes a character in his own story, filling in for Fogg’s gentleman’s-gentleman, Passepartout. But instead of activating the other characters--as an author trying to meet a deadline would be in a mood to do--he seems to be merely along for the ride.

True, Verne occasionally smites his forehead at Fogg’s cold-blooded Englishness, especially in regard to women (in particular the lovely and resourceful Princess Aouda, played by Yamil Borges). But this doesn’t seem a make-or-break issue. Rather than an author frantically trying to whip a manuscript into shape, this Verne might be reading proof.

Meanwhile, we miss the fun provided in the book by Passepartout. Until the authors can make Verne as vivid within his story as the character whom he is replacing--and it’s a script problem, not an acting problem--this show will be hoist on the petard of its one clever notion.

The notion of rolling out poor old Queen Victoria--Brooks Almy--to sing about Albert isn’t particularly clever. It is in tune with the show’s Empire-bashing, as are all those scenes with the half-dead old men back at the Reform Club, clad in rubber masks. But then rubber masks seem to be the national costume wherever Phileas Fogg goes. This gets a little tiresome, as does the running gag about whether Verne will or won’t use a balloon in the story.

Davies’ songs are fun. That is, the tunes are. He throws in rock, ragtime and Indian ragas (Fogg gets to Calcutta, remember), and the eclecticism works as amusingly as Schmidt’s settings and Susan Hilferty’s costumes. Musically, the man knows what’s up.

His lyrics are awful, as bad as Tim Rice’s. No, not that awful. But what can one say about “It really goes to show/ How deep emotions go?” Yes, that awful. It’s especially painful when Fogg needs something deadly and precise, in the Henry Higgins vein. What kind of gentleman rhymes “perseverance” and “experience”?

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Landfield would make a splendid Henry Higgins and he makes a splendid Phileas Fogg, as noble of brow as a collie--a not particularly affectionate one. We are rooting for him and the warm-hearted Verne to meet on some plane, as the show tries to arrange for them to do; but they don’t.

Besides playing Queen Victoria, Brooks Almy plays a sassy old strumpet built along the same lines as Queen Victoria. We also get a bumbling detective (Don Amendolia) and a palsied butler (Matthew Eaton Bennett), so don’t worry--this “80 Days” doesn’t get too deconstructed.

In fact, they’re still laying down the tracks.

Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes Oct. 2. Tickets $21-$28. Mandell Weiss Center, Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Village Drive, (619) 534-3960.

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’80 DAYS’

A musical based on Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days,” at the La Jolla Playhouse. Music and lyrics Ray Davies. Book Snoo Wilson. Directed by Des McAnuff. Conceived by Davies, McAnuff and Wilson. Choreography Dianne McIntyre. Musical supervision Danny Troob. Musical direction Jonny Bowden. Orchestrations Robby Merkin. Vocal arrangements Troob and Bowden. Incidental music Ada Janik. Sets Douglas W. Schmidt. Costumes Susan Hilferty. Lighting David F. Segal. Sound John Kilgore. Masks Christina Haatalnen. Mask/movement specialist Jared Sakren. Production stage manager Steven Adler. Stage manager Susan Slagle. Dramaturge Robert Blacker. Vocal and dialect coach Susan Leigh. Assistant director Ross S. Wasserman. Assistant choreographer Phillip Bond. With Brooks Almy, Don Amendolia, Matthew Eaton Bennett, Stephen Bogardus, Yamil Borges, Jay Garner, Randy Graff, Ernest Harada, Scott Harlan, Paul Kandel, Timothy Landfield, Scotch Ellis Loring, Deborah Nishimura, Lannyl Stephens, Cynthia Vance, Matthew Wright, Risa Benson, Kevin Connell, Karen Gedissman, Mindy Hull, Sylvia MacAlla, Jim Morlino, Andrew Weems, Christopher Zelno.


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