Review: Wheaton Drama’s “The 39 Steps”

Wow… it has been a while since I have done one of these. Looking back on my history it would appear that the last one that I saw was Brightside Theater’s Moonlight and Magnolias, which was done back in early September of… 2013?!?!? Oh my gosh…

So what has kept me from reviewing all the other shows that I have undoubtedly seen since then? A multitude of reasons really:
1) I’m busy… but then again when am I not?
2) I haven’t seen anything on the community theater circuit that went “you have to write about this”… which I suppose isn’t fair since reviews are suppose to be honest opinions of a show.
3) This was beginning to feel like work than fun… but all things that were hobbies eventually become that, no?

Ah well…

Whatever the reason, I am here and I am writing now… and mainly because this show MUST BE SEEN. Don’t believe me? You don’t have to, go and see the show once, and you’ll find yourself wanting to see more because you are sure you…

Ok… wait… slow down here… let’s get through the formalities first and then beyond the break get to the nitty gritty… and there is a lot of nitty gritty here.

Acting: LOVE
Directing: LOVE
Set Design: LOVE
Overall: LOVE

Ok… ready? Here we go…

If you are not familiar with the original film of “The 39 Steps”

“A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.”

So now imagine all the speaking role characters from that film being portrayed by four actors. And ONLY four. From Samuel French:

Mix a Hitchcock masterpiece with a juicy spy novel, add a dash of Monty Python and you have The 39 Steps, a fast-paced whodunit for anyone who loves the magic of theatre! This 2-time Tony® and Drama Desk Award-winning treat is packed with nonstop laughs, over 150 zany characters (played by a ridiculously talented cast of 4), an on-stage plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and some good old-fashioned romance!

In The 39 Steps, a man with a boring life meets a woman with a thick accent who says she’s a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon, a mysterious organization called “The 39 Steps” is hot on the man’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale!

Not much different… and yet for someone who has seen the original film… they are differing points in a multitude of things. But to go through that would be dull and boring… so let’s get to the nitty gritty.

The one thing that sets this particular show apart from all others that I have seen is that from the moment you walk into the lobby you not only have the usual Wheaton Drama welcoming fare but there is a certain ambiance and direction that shifts the audience perception just slightly before the show hasn’t even started.

A lot of what happens before, during, after the production came from the ingenious and creative mind of one Ken Kaden, an exceptional actor and person on and off stage, but with this new hat of directing (first show at Wheaton Drama)… the ideas and concepts that are flowing from him are beyond the scope of what could be deemed as “typical fare”. If missing him onstage means we get fantastic little gems like this, as much as that would be a bitter pill to swallow, swallow gladly we must because it will be worth it in the end.

And you have no idea how much I wish to enlighten you with what is going on, but to tell would be to ruin the carefully crafted experience for the audience goer. What I will tell you is that Ken Kaden very definitively has his thumb on the comedy, and not just any comedy… the whole gamut of comedy from physical to dialogue to nuances to in-your-face… If you are not laughing at one point during the production, you will definitely be laughing at another point and so on. There is something funny here for everyone and if you happen to find yourself laughing at every – single – joke, then congratulations! There is your ab workout for the month (if not year).

Naturally, a great director must also be supported by strong actors… and this one doesn’t disappoint. The cast of four playing every single speaking role from the film include Christopher Williams as Richard Hannay, Lisa Dawn Foertsch as Annabella / Pamela / Margaret… and Sean Ogren and Anthony Mele portraying… well, everyone else.

And I do mean – everyone else – both gentlemen portrayed every single one of their characters (and I stopped counting because I just wanted to enjoy the production) without melting one to another. There were times when I forget that it is the same actor playing certain parts because they are all so unique from the last. And having to portray over a couple dozen characters could be a daunting task for anyone, but these two do it was such flair and commitment that one cannot help but wonder how it could be done in any other way.

Lisa Dawn… what is there to be said about her that hasn’t already been said in the past? She exudes that mix of German agent minx with a comedic vibe, into the defiant strong willed Brit and then melting into the flirting and cute Scottish lass. No matter which character she is portraying, she not only clearly defined each character but also clearly define the humor for each one as well. I haven’t seen her in a comedy like this before, and here is hoping she will be in other productions down the road.

Finally the show’s primary character of Richard Hannay as portrayed by Christopher Williams. He truly brought his A-game to this production and to great affect. The character to run the full gamut of emotions, he never lost that little bit of cynical and sarcastic wit where his life was turn upside down and inside out in a matter of a few days. It has been a while since he was last seen at Wheaton Drama, and here is hoping he will be around in the future.

The irony with this production is that the cast are not the only ones on stage, some of the stage hands were able to fill in some blanks when in between scenes or… playing with the shadow puppets. THE SHADOW PUPPETS! Even the shadow puppets were fun to watch too. The sound design was expertly handled by the team of Dave Amato and Sean Ogren (is there anything that this man can’t do?), lights are perfect as always by Jim Van de Velde and I haven’t seen a show run nearly as smooth as this one on Opening Night (usually there is a glitch here or there during Opening Weekend, and not so this evening) and I am sure the production has Elyse Willis to thank for that.

Ok… I better stop now before I start sounding like a broken record. This was / is a strong production from the moment you step into Playhouse 111 and it definitely did not stop til well after the curtain closes. If I find time to see this production again, I will… but my time is limited and I am certain anyone reading this has far more free time than I do… so go and see this production!

If you were to ask me… Any one of these actors alone would be worth the price of admission… Heck even the sound design and shadow puppets would be worth the price of admission…

Running thru Sunday February 22nd. For more information and tickets head to Wheaton Drama‘s website.

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