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Hilarity ensues in TheatreWorks ‘Around the World in 80 Days’

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From left, Ajna Jai, Jason Kuykendall, Tristan Cunningham, Michael Gene Sullivan and Ron Campbell are funny in TheatreWorks’ entertaining “Around the World in 80 Days,” based on the Jules Verne novel. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)
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TheatreWorks Silicon Valley deserves to have a holiday hit on its hands with Los Angeles-based playwright Mark Brown’s 2008 adaptation of the 1872 novel by French writer Jules Verne, “Around the World in Eighty Days.”

Thanks to Brown’s witty script, three local comic geniuses (Ron Campbell, Michael Gene Sullivan and the wonderfully acrobatic Tristan Cunningham, all in multiple roles), Robert Kelley’s fine-tuned direction, and Joe Ragey’s fanciful scenic design, the play is a delight from start (Campbell’s droll introductory announcements) to finish (the expected happy and romantic ending).

Following Verne’s expansive plot, Brown traces the adventures of the mathematically obsessed gentleman Phileas Fogg (a suitably unflappable but otherwise bland Jason Kuykendall), who wagers, at his London club, that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.

By train, steamship, sail-driven sled and trumpeting elephant, Fogg travels from London to the Suez Canal, India, Hong Kong, Yokahama, San Francisco, Omaha, New York and back to London, accompanied by his faithful manservant Jean Passepartout (Cunningham).

He’s pursued by a bumbling, Clouseau-like detective (Sullivan) who’s convinced Fogg is the perpetrator of a recent bank heist.

At every stopover, Campbell plays a host of clerks and other bit parts, including a maid, giving each stereotype a fresh and hilarious spin (and a distinctive accent, vocal timbre and posture, with B. Modern’s amusing costumes enhancing each characterization).

Along the way, among the many obstacles that impede the intrepid pair, Passepartout commits a cultural faux pas in a pagoda; there’s a wicked storm at sea; and, in India, Fogg is compelled to rescue a comely Indian princess (Ajna Jai), providing a love interest for the shy and socially awkward hero.

The scenic design includes colorful, intricately painted flats, upstage projections, multiple levels, an elephant straight out of a picture book and more.

Kelley makes full use of the theater, with actors occasionally racing up the aisles, and a crew member apparently huddled beneath the lip of the stage, providing a series of alarming props (a cobra!) and effects (shrieks and a pouf of steam every time a train takes off, with sound design by Cliff Caruthers).

There have been many adaptations of Verne’s novel, from films to stage musicals; Brown hews closer to the novel than to the well-known 1956 film with David Niven and a balloon, and the result, at least in TheatreWorks’ production, might just be the funniest of all.

REVIEW

Around the World in 80 Days
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 31
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, theatreworks.org

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