By Rebecca Romani
November 29, 2019
For Phileas Fogg, London-based gentleman of substantial means, life is a series of planned mathematical events to keep his day running, on time, and on schedule, with not a moment out of place. And yet, on a whim in 1872, intrigued by the idea of that a new railway section has opened in India, permitting travelers to circumvent the world in 80 days. Fogg accepts a wager to do just that- make it back in 80 days or else lose his fortune.
The question is, will he?
Thus begins the madcap musical adaption of Laura Eason’s play based on Verne’s novel, now in its world premier at New Village Arts in Carlsbad. Set to the rollicking original songs of the Shantyannes- as self-styled “pirate rock” band, “Around The World” is a light, funny, and often touching look at human nature, love, and the desire to matter to someone.
Roughly following the original story, “Around the World in 80 Days” tracks Fogg as he globe hops from London to Bombay, dragging the clever and devoted Passepartout, an acrobat turned manservant, in his wake. Word of a completed train service through India is premature and Fogg acquires an elephant and a beautiful widowed guest on his way to Calcutta.
However, Fogg is not the only one crossing the world. Unbeknownst to him, one Inspector Fix, Scotland Yard, suspects him of robbing a British bank and makes it his mission to try arrest Fogg in every place under the British sun.
How and when Fogg makes it back to London makes for a fun show that moves swiftly though its two hour plus run.
The eight-member cast is extraordinarily gifted, with four of them moving seamlessly through dozens of parts. The voices are beautiful and Jenna Ingrassia-Know’s dance choreography is impressively executed. Director Kristianne Kurner’s deft work with the cast keeps the energy level high and the scene shifts entertaining. Kurner has made an interesting decision with the casting- moving the normally male-heavy characters into more nuanced portrayals by choosing female and non-binary actors for a number of roles, including that of Passepartout.
Frankie Alicea-Ford is elegant and unflappable as Phileas Fogg, and he takes Fogg nicely from stiff aristocrat to a man who discovers the world may just hold the one person to soothe his loneliness. Audrey Eytchison is absolutely charming as Fogg’s man servant, Passepartout. While Eytchison is occasionally a little manic, but her delivery makes Passepartout a joy to watch.
Farah Dinga imbues Kamana Aouda, the widow Fogg saves in India from suttee, or the immolation of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre, with a touching dignity that differentiates her from the rest of the characters. As Aouda and Fogg grow to appreciate and then love each other, Dinga keeps Aouda from turning into a caricature of an allegory for Britain’s centuries long rule over India.
All three are balanced nicely by AJ Knox’s earnest and yet somewhat hapless Inspector Fix whose comedic turns with Passepartout raise the humor of the show.
One of the quartet’s best moments come in the surprisingly lyrical “Sledge Ride” scene in which all four sing of their hopes of completing their tasks as they race by sledge to New York. One of the most touching numbers in the show, it’s Andrew Lloyd Weber like in its beauty.
The cast is beautifully rounded out by the Ensemble players, Alexander Guzman, Olivia Pence, Jasmine January, and Rae Henderson, who play a whole world of characters, complete with excellent accents. Their infectious energy and superb ensemble dance work almost steal the show.
A special mention goes out to the ‘Mainstage Players” who filled out the cast. The “Mainstage Players” is a professional training group for young adults with neurodiversity, run by New Village Arts.
The New Village Arts stage is one of the smaller stages in the San Diego theatre scene, but Tanya Orellana’a set makes cleaver use of stage with parts suggesting boat railings, sitting rooms, and a large ship. The use of projected material in the porthole backdrop is brilliant and the shorts by the Lumière brothers and excerpts of “The Great Train Robbery” add to the vaudeville-like ambiance.
Emily Wilson’s costumes are beautiful with enough give for the dance numbers and Becky Goodman’s lighting design, especially for the storm at sea, was subtle and effective.
In the simple but versatile set, there are a few things that could be adjusted. One is the elephant Fogg and his group take to Calcutta, While the elephant was well-drawn, it felt decidedly staid, especially in light of the rest of the show’s moving parts. Something a bit more Julie Taymor-inspired would have given the pachyderm much needed presence. Another detail is the flags used to represent the countries Fogg passes through. In a set piece full of anachronisms and fabulous imaginings by nature, perhaps this is a small thing- but it might have been interesting to use flags closer to the time period of the piece, 1872, instead of flags that are primarily post-1972.
All that aside, “Around The World In 80 Days” is one of the most entertaining and fun pieces to watch this season. And as the holidays start to move into full swing, this is a great family-friendly show to take a break from the pace, a light offering of comedy and music, beautifully done.