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Step aside, Sherlock as Hannay solves mystery of ‘The 39 Steps’

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"The 39 Steps" at Olathe Civic Theatre Association

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Find a talented, tested, comedy director; assemble a cast of four actors capable of playing several diverse characters; add some wigs and skirts for characters in drag; and stir in play that parodies the old Alfred Hitchcock murder mystery and you get “The 39 Steps” that debuted April 25 at Olathe Civic Theatre Association (OCTA).

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The play, “The 39 Steps” derives from the novel by John Buchan that was adapted to the Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps, and later adapted into the play. Shelly Stewart Banks undertook directing this zany comedy/thriller for the community theatre venue on the south part of the Kansas City metro area, Olathe, Kan.

The play marks the final production for OCTA’s 2014 season and features an ensemble cast of Peter Leondedis, Carrie Lenahan, Dave Fullerton and Charles Christesson–all taking on the myriad of parts and diverse characters for the rapid-fire comedy, a spokesman for OCTA said. “The 39 Steps” concludes OCTA’s 40th consecutive season.

“Adapted from the book and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie of the same name, the play takes place over the days following a mysterious murder of a spy in Richard Hannay's apartment. Racing through the Scottish countryside, Hannay meets a variety of characters in search of the clues to the "The 39 Steps," OCTA said. “With a cast of four actors playing the myriad of people in the adventure, the play is a whirlwind of excitement and Monty Python-esque comedy.”

“The 39 Steps” stands apart from other run of the mill comedies and boasts to be Broadway’s longest running comedy. According to website: ibdb.com, the show ran for nearly 800 performances from 2008-10.

Just imagine a mix of Monty Python and Alfred Hitchcock. Hard to imagine? Then see the show and expect to laugh. Cast members must change costumes, personalities, characters as they spin around as one character and face the audience as another. The rapid fire dialogue and character changes keep audiences tuned-in and alert when not laughing.

Opening night drew a large crowd to usher in the production. The production brings laughs from the opening scenes and keeps audiences on their toes to think about what will come next. The format suggests a series of short sketches strung together to make the whole play work.

Overall, the play works and draws lots of laughs. The cast is on top of the script and play well to the absurdity of the piece. Act I went really well, but Act II slowed down just a bit too much. The skits get a little long, but that’s not the fault of the actors or director, it’s the script. Some tightening and speed would solve that. And, opening night is always difficult. Actors do not know where the laughs will come until they try a piece with an audience.

With one show under their belt, the balance of the weekend will be much smoother and subsequent weekends will show a well-polished production. OCTA always comes through with quality pieces. “The 39 Steps” just needs to shine up some awkward small pieces and it will delight audiences.

Of the cast, Peter Leondedis is so funny as the straight man who has to stay constant in his character opposite the two clownish actors, David Fullerton and Charles Christesson. Still, Leondedis gets several opportunities for his flair for physical comedy to shine.

As for Fullerton and Christesson, their physical humor throughout the piece is fun. Their facial contortions are hilarious. Their timing in several of the skits is Timex accurate. The femme fatale, Carrie Lenahan plays about five or more different characters on this crazy thrill ride of a piece. Each of the four actors gets plenty of opportunity to shine and show wide diversity of characters.

The creative team, led by Banks as director was made up of: D.K. Evenson, stage manager, Cheryl Singers, set design; Craig McCann, lighting, Kerry Schafer, costumes; and Rita Marks, props.

Each of the individuals added to the production. Costumes were functional and, at times, funny. The set necessitated minimalist features because of so many changes and was a fun concept with the “Lazy Susan” rotation in the center. Lighting was effective as different areas needed different lighting. Stage management and props worked well with actors and props changing rapidly. Give them credit for a well-executed production.

“The 39 Steps” opened April 25 and runs weekends through May 11. Evening performances begin at 8 p.m. Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m.

Olathe Civic Theatre Association began as Olathe Community Theatre Association in 1973. OCTA produced shows at various locations throughout Olathe. In 2013 the group officially changed its name to the Olathe Civic Theatre Association to better reflect the breadth and caliber of the theatre experience it provides, a press release said.

“Through the generosity of volunteers, season ticket holders, donors, city and community, in addition to dedicated Board of Directors, OCTA has grown into one of the most successful and progressive community theaters in the entire Kansas City metropolitan area,” a spokesman said.

Reservations may be made through the website: olathetheatre.org. OCTA is located at 500 E. Loula, Olathe, Kansas.

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