Coronado, CA---In his program notes, producing artistic director Robert Smyth ends his brief remarks about Lamb’s Players Theatre’s present offering “The 39 Steps” with … “and please feel free to laugh”. Anyone sitting through this fast and frantic little romp that doesn’t feel the urgent need to laugh, or at least smile is in the wrong theatre.
For Alfred Hitchcock buffs, the Tony Award winning The 39 Steps currently showing at Lamb’s Players Theatre through Sept. 22nd is a virtual smorgasbord with all the toppings and enough goodies to satisfy every taste.
If you’ve never heard of the great moviemaker/director Hitchcock or his “39 Steps” think “Rear Window”, “The Birds”, “North By Northwest”, “Dial M For Murder”, “Vertigo” and “Psycho” for starters. It’s no biggie if you are not a follower. There was always his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents that lasted about ten years. I think I’m dating myself, but do check it out.
Hitchcock’s wry sense of humor both in the movies and on TV is evident from the outset, as each of his TV shows opened with music from Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette as the body of the rotund Hitchcock walks into a silhouetted caricature of the man himself. And he manages a cameo appearance in every one of his movies as he does in this production. Now, if you still have no recollection of any of the above mentioned forget I said anything and just enjoy the excellent production at Lamb’s deftly directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth.
John Buchan’s 1915 book The 39 Steps with original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and the film version was adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow. That all may sound like “Who Killed John”? You ain’t heard nothing yet! It is also based on the Hitchcock 1935 spy thriller of the same name and is considered a classic in this particular genre.
The 39 Steps follows the same patterns for which most other Hitchcock thrillers are known. It is a combination Victorian melodrama and Elizabethan drama and is said to have been the first of many of Hitchcock’s murder mystery to set this tone.
It goes something like this: lonely man Richard Hannay (David S. Humphrey) goes to theatre (Palladium to be exact) because he’s bored; man is watching a performance of “Mr. Memory”, played by Jesse Abeel, (he also plays about every other character, male and female, with assorted accents), who is a man with a photographic memory.
In the middle of his act a fight breaks out and a mysterious woman from the audience fires shots. The lonely man soothes an agitated and hysterical woman and takes the gun from her. The mysterious woman (Kelsey Venter is Annabella Schmidt/ Pamela/Margaret) convinces the man to take her back to his apartment.
Back at his flat she gives him some cockamamie story that she is a government spy and is being chased by foreign assassins who have stolen government secrets. She is being followed by the bad guys, one of whom has a joint missing from one of his pinky fingers. (Clue or not?) She also reveals the conspirators are in a German espionage organization called (you guessed it) “The 39 Steps”.
The next morning the girl winds up stabbed with his bread knife in her back. He finds her strewn across his lap when he wakes up in his chair. In her hand is a map of Scotland Yard. (Another clue?) Concerned about being falsely accused of murder he takes it on the lamb with the map and the chase begins.
On the run, over the meadows and through the woods cutting across cold misty London countryside’s, farms, county estates, dangerous foggy sea cliffs, choo-choo-train chases from England to Scotland, and spooky taverns, encountering various and sundry red herrings and a bevy of suspicious looking characters who may or may not be guilty of the crime and or the subterfuge, Hannay is determined to get tot the bottom of The 39 Steps conspiracy.
So far this tongue in cheek thriller is all too familiar. And when Richard is being chased by the police on the train and meets a beautiful young woman and kisses her to hide his face from the police, we have to think “North by Northwest”.
Again, you really don’t have to be an Alfred Hitchcock fan or have to have seen any of his movies to enjoy this delicious little caper that Lamb’s is honing in on. "The 39 Steps" has but four players (three men and one woman) playing 140 characters running, changing clothes, locations and accents at a frenetically faster than a humanly possible rate of speed, that it's almost impossible to keep up with them.
“Steps” is more of a comedy thriller than the original movie all the while spoofing the movie itself. As Smyth said, ‘feel free to laugh’, snicker or mouth gaping open in wonder at the lightning rod pacing and accuracy that the players, Robert Smyth, Jesse Abeel, Kelsey Venter and Humphrey are asked to move in, in order for things to fall into place (not that everything did on opening night but that was part of the fun).
With the combined efforts of the four actors, set and properties designer Michael McKeon, lighting designer Nathan Peirson and costume designer Jemima Dutra a perfect storm, if you will, unfolds.
Ms. Smyth and company have used every trick of the trade imaginable and available to them from puppets to silhouettes and back lighting (including the silhouette of Hitchcock walking into his own body outline; airplanes diving about and around Humphrey’s as he is running- more “North By Northwest”), to slight of hand and imitating the ferocity of the wind; doors slamming and opening, crawling through windows to falling out of balconies.
Add hat and coat tricks, split second costume and wig changes, an array of accents to those same chases across the Scottish countryside that make you feel exhausted and elated at the same time, and you’ll wonder just exactly what happened?
Sound effects (Ms Smyth based on original design by McPool) mustered to keep the show propped up and moving forward toward solving the mystery of The 39 Steps are perfect. In case you were wondering, it doesn’t take a sleuth to figure it out the ending, but it is fun watching it play out to the ending.
Humphrey, best recognized as a musical theatre actor, has just the right look, facial expressions and demeanor to pull off the befuddled, panicked, bewildered and confused Hannay. It doesn’t hurt that he is handsome, suave and smooth either. He stays in character throughout while Smyth (great seeing him back on the stage) has zeroed in using all of his experience and expertise (including an array of accents) to play several of the, ahem, older characters.
Abeel changes from male to female in the blink of an eye and is a hoot as every character he takes on. But it’s his first entrance as Mr. Memory that leaves a lasting impression since he also solves the mystery of “The 39 Steps”
Both Abeel and Smyth are listed in the program as Clown #1 and Clown #2. Ms. Venter (“Guys and Dolls” and “Trying”) is also a master of the ‘over the top’ comedy as she too pops up in several of the more funny scenes. This production is fun, silly and well, just overall what the doctor ordered for an end of summer frolic.
Definitely worth a try… and please feel free to laugh!
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Sept. 22nd
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Production Type: Mystery/Comedy
Where: 1142 Orange Ave Coronado, CA
Ticket Prices: $22.00-$62.00