THE 39 STEPS – Alhambra Theatre review

The Alhambra Theatre opened Alfred Hitchcock‘s “The 39 Steps” on August 6, 2014 for a limited engagement through September 7. For Information and reservations, call 904-641-1212 or visit www.alhambrajax.com.

THEATRE_39steps-2A 1915 novel by Scottish author John Buchan was freely adapted by Hitchcock as the screenplay for one of his most famous films, a mystery thriller with a prolonged wild chase scene; a classic which shows up on cable from time to time and is available at the public library. Scottish actor/playwright Patrick Barlow adapted the story for the stage, closely following the dialogue in the movie. The play opened in 2005 in London, went to Broadway in 2008, was nominated for six Tonys (winning two), and ran for 800 performances. It went back on the stage in London in 2008 and is still running after six years!

The playwright has fashioned a show that is campy and filled with loads of silliness. And he’s added a twist: the play has over 150 characters, but only four actors. The actor playing the main character is the only actor limited to one role. Don’t try to count the number of characters played by the other three actors, as the costume and role changes are remarkably fast and furious and that is part of the fun.

THEATRE_39steps-4The plot concerns a smooth and cultured Englishman, Richard Hannay (Nathan Freeman) who flees from London. While the police are pursuing him because he has left a murdered woman behind in his apartment, he is pursuing the spy ring responsible for the murder. His itinerary takes him, among other settings, on a trip to Scotland to the home of a poor farmer, to the podium at a political meeting, to an isolated country inn, and eventually, to a London music hall. Of course, he is being chased throughout his travels by sinister villains as well as the police.

Gracie Winchester plays the roles of all the women (well, almost all), and is the sexy spy who exited dramatically dead, shortly after encountering Hannay. She moves on to a portrayal of a homely wife, and continues as a lovely woman initially traveling alone by train, who later ends up handcuffed to our hero, Hannay.

Ethan Paulini and Tom Bengston are listed in the program as Clown # 1 and Clown # 2 and although they do clown it up, they do not dress as clowns, but instead portray their many, many assigned characters with various British and Scottish accents. Be prepared for a crowd when they start exchanging clothing and emerge with new identities ranging from policemen, to laborers, villains, and traveling salesmen; they appear in female roles as well. This dynamic duo does it all, repeatedly .

Director/Producer Tod Booth could not have cast the show any better, as it take exceptionally talented and intelligent actors to handle the split-second timing.

THEATRE_39steps-3This lively romp would not have been possible without the contributions of the production staff, which included an ingenious set design by David Dionne, an incredible array of costumes by The Costume Crew, and the efficient moving of many items on and off the stage, handled by Property Master Kelly McCormick. The unique lighting design by Craig Scurti included a projection screen in center stage that took the audience on an exciting train ride using videos. The screen is also used very effectively with actors in silhouette when running or being chased by airplanes. The sound design by Jim Jackson is very intricate, requiring the same demanding timing as the on-stage action.

Kudos to the unseen heroes, Costume Assistant Amanda Harvey and Stage Hand Thomas Brewster, for the swift costume and set changes. Stage Manager Jason Nettle, as the commanding officer of the back stage, kept things moving smoothly.

Fans of Hitchcock will love this show, especially those who have seen the film version. It may be one of the cleverest plays ever done on the Alhambra stage; a collection of well shaped tricks and surprises, filled with zany sight gags; yes, indeed, sight gags galore. You will appreciate the meticulously worked out performances.

If you are an Alhambra regular, you know that the theatre always uses a theme to create a unique experience. For example, you will find an authentic English phone booth in the lobby (a great photo opportunity, bring your camera). Chef DeJuan Roy has included menu items that will transport you to England, if you so desire. Choose bangers and mash or fish and chips if you are adventurous. Other choices are roast lamb, chicken divan, or curried vegetable pot pie.

For patrons who are connoisseurs of adult beverages, thematic specials include Alhambra tea with Jameson Whiskey and triple sec, or a sparkling cucumber- mint gimlet, while Mr. Memory brings together ginger beer and dark rum over ice. And for beer lovers, authentic Guinness Draught is available.

So if you are in the mood for a fast-paced mystery filled with broad comedy, then don’t miss “39 Steps.” The staging at the Alhambra is, as always, remarkable.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.
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