'80 Days' A World Away From True Emotion
The central character in the musical "80 Days" at the La Jolla Playhouse is Jules Verne himself, a dreamy French romantic turned deadline-desperate by publishers and domestic realities.
When Phileas Fogg, Verne's intrepid Englishman, sets out on a bet to circumnavigate the world in 80 days, Verne himself signed on as valet. So the author of "Around the World in 80 Days" is constantly present, in person, to plead excuses for the loony plot he used to bind the scenery and adventures of his popular 19th century novel.
The world premiere of "80 Days" happened Sunday. At the Playhouse today, director Des McAnuff must be slumped down, panting and exhausted from his remarkable endeavors to breathe some fun and life into Verne's fantasies. And his "80 Days" is in fact a dizzy, complex, glittering pageant of stagecraft, an encyclopedia of tricks and gimmicks, a fancy mechanical marvel in the spirit of Verne's own baroque sense of technology.
The trouble is there's no soul in the show. When sentiment threatens, everything goes stiff and formal. Lack of coherence is one thing. A quick dance routine or some moving scenery distracts from minor plot details. But a musical unable to take sentiment seriously is in trouble.
Verne, the character, acknowledges the problem and addresses it at length. But English playwright Snoo Wilson, who wrote the book for the show, never comes close to generating genuine human emotion. Instead, he dwells at length on the same matched set of leather-bound British idiosyncrasies that have served satirists from Gilbert and Sullivan to Monty Python.
Wilson is fine with wry, sly material - the pub around the corner is called the Squid and Ferret, the French after the Second Empire are "the poodles of Europe." He just stirs no juices between his characters, leaving them mostly utilitarian cartoons.
The Phineas Fogg of "80 Days" makes Sherlock Holmes and Henry Higgins look like fraternity boys. He's stern, prompt, sober and not amused, virtually everything that a Frenchman might both deplore and respect in a Victorian bachelor. So much the better, of course, when it comes time for him to fall in love, the Shakespearean Beatrice and Benedict principle.
Only this Fogg, severely smitten by the lovely Indian princess he rescues from cremation beside her late husband, never is able to express his feelings for the woman and her infant in a believable, not to mention moving, fashion. Even after Queen Victoria herself has blessed the union and the couple push their baby buggy off into the sunset, there's no sense of satisfied relief, of lovers united, despite all the babbling and cooing by the on-stage Jules Verne.
Ray Davies 17 songs never hurt the show and often help. Obviously, he must be encouraged to keep writing show scores. This time, though, there's a feeling that Davies has tried too hard to be part of a package and help push the plot. Johnny Bowden conducts a nifty nine-piece band in Robby Merkin's clever, driving orchestrations of the score.
The biggest challenge in adapting the Verne novel to the stage is the middle of the show, which sags noticeably in La Jolla. The beginning and ending take care of themselves. In between, though, there's a wide world of picturesque adventure as Fogg slogs onward and the gents back home follow his progress.
Verne's subplot about a pursuing police inspector with a mistaken warrant for Fogg's arrest is gratefully embraced by "80 Days" creators, who give the cops a libidinous mother and a missing father. Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Gladstone even turn up, with innuendoes more comprehensible in England than elsewhere. But textually, there's not enough.
So McAnuff throws a thick mixture of imagination and craftsmanship at the problem, hoping something will stick. He offers various variations on a balloon theme (despite Verne's insistence that he wrote of no balloons) and such other diversions as rickshaws, boats of various splendor, a steam elephant and a grotesque typewriter table that follows Verne around like something loaned by "Star Wars."
Douglas W. Schmidt designed most of this stuff and deserves considerable commendation both for the quality of his work. Admittedly, the tricks eventually are whizzing by so fast that they begin to blur. And, with so many ideas in the pot, extremes tend to cancel each other out. Susan Hilferty has assembled an endless parade of vivacious costumes and, though David F. Segal's lighting design might have been more helpful, there's always something to watch.
A major part of the "80 Days" book comes from the use of stylized half-masks to turn 18 supporting actors into 70 characters. Christina Haatienen fashioned those fascinating devices, and Jared Sakren helped integrate them into to show as an ingredient arresting if dramatically ambiguous.
As with Wilson's book, Davies best music is the least sentimental. "Well-Bred Englishman" is a dandy number, sung with ringing enthusiasm and debonair insouciance by Fogg and fellow members of his club. "A Place in Your Heart" is an outdoor rouser for a speeding ice boat that recalls some of Roger Miller's "Big River" songs. "Against the Tide" is a neat soft-shoe and "Be Rational" has some depth. But the Princess' "Who Is This Man," Davies best shot at a ballad, starts vague and meanders.
Timothy Landfield has carved his Fogg from the marble of the Empire, a ruthless figure from Victorian mythology. Stephen Bogardus plays Verne much more softly, easily identifiable as a human striver adrift in uncertain creative seas. They make a neatly contrasting pair, and each in his own way helps the creators enormously.
This is a show that pushes against the limitations of theater, not always gracefully and never with a definition breakthrough. A judicious selectivity in simplifying the shows dense mix of tricks would be in order.
More important, though, might be a general rewrite of the script to introduce some recognizable human emotion, even at the cost of cleverness and wit.
Welton Jones, The San Diego Union, August 30, 1988.