Live theater’s unique ability to put over elaborate romantic epics with a few frantically doubling thesps and a dollop of imagination is the major selling point of “Around the World in 80 Days” at the Laguna Playhouse. Inspired by a “steampunk” fusion of techno and Victoriana, helmer Michael Butler’s production, by way of Walnut Creek’s Center REP and Laguna co-producer San Jose Rep, isn’t the most seamless or sophisticated example of story theater. But it’s attractive and diverting, certainly a swell introduction to the form for kids.
Designer Kelly Tighe’s principal scenic element is a huge central disk run by “invisible” black-clad stagehands, one step below the steam power of author Jules Verne’s universe. Platform’s spinning delightfully sends the globetrotters eastward by rail, ship and carriage, a set of castered chairs constantly rearranged to change locale. (Production uses Mark Brown’s much-produced, uninspired but efficient retelling of Phileas Fogg’s 80-day quest to win a wager and escape the Scotland Yard dick who suspects him of bank robbery.)
The influence of steampunk, predominant in films like “Wild Wild West” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” is lightly felt in the Victorian accoutrements above and around the playing area, and in the yellow-striped jumpsuits investing the ensemble with the air of Oompa-Loompas. (The basic garment is dull, but costumer Todd Roehrman does beautifully with the hats and pieces thesps don and doff with lightning speed.)
More visible is the mechanical quality with which the characters are set about their business, in a flurry of clockwork motion and robotic diction at first provocative and gradually tiring. Matthew Floyd Miller’s Fogg, with the image and effect of the man on the wedding cake, isn’t easy to like or root for, especially when love for the Princess Aouda (an enchanting Anna Bullard, who could defrost any Victorian stiff) is supposed to bring out his warmer side.
When technical dazzle and humanity meet with felicity — as in the ingenious transformation of a rolling cart into an elephant, the trunk provided by a two-foot high wooden digit “2” — the protean Mark Farrell is usually at the bottom of it, playing the most roles with the greatest versatility.
Howard Swain as Detective Fix, Fogg’s dogged pursuer, would be twice as effective doing half as much. Meanwhile, Gendell Hernandez’s aggressively Gallic manservant Passepartout, tumbling and leaping as his voice travels from guttural grunting to squeals, is by any measure an acquired taste, most likely acquired by those who find clowns, repetitious wordplay and shameless mugging endearing.
Handsome production is always an eyeful under Kurt Landisman’s delicate lighting scheme, though some magic-lantern slides of maps and overseas locations would orient us, build suspense and make better use of the back wall than the drapery there now.