Connecticut ~ Review: "The 39 Steps" at Warner Stage Company

by Nancy Sasso Janis, OnStage CriticThe 39 Steps is a silly melodrama that was adapted from a 1915 novel by John Buchan and the subsequent 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon are responsible for the original concept featuring only four actors that was adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005. The limit of four actors requires lightening fast quick changes and sometimes for them to play multiple characters at the same time. So the classic film's very serious spy story is mixed with Monty Python-style humor and the result is many laughs.

The script is full of Hitchcock film riffs and in the program Warner Executive Director Lynn Gelormino invites the audience to watch and listen for them during the show. Although I am not at Hitchcock fan, I caught the references to Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. There was also the occasional homage to more current films that added to the fun.

Director Katherine Ray tells us in her notes that her goal for this production was to "bring a smile to the audience from lights up to lights down and have them leave the theatre with cramped cheeks." The opening night audience appreciated the humor and the hard work put into the performance by the four very busy actors and the costumed backstage crew. Ms. Ray takes credit for the crazy ideas and her nutty thought process, but she expresses her gratitude to the supremely talented character actors and a dream crew for pulling it all off.

The only actor who plays one role is Dick Terhune as Richard Hannay, but he must appear in all but one of the scenes. Last seen in Moon Over Buffalo at the Nancy Marine, Mr. Terhune uses his great voice and good looks to play the leading man who never stops moving in this fast paced show. The only female in the cast is the lovely Holly Martin, last seen at the Nancy Marine in Songs for New World and Reefer Madness. She plays Richard's romantic interests Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret (but not Linus that was a typo in the program.) I loved watching her transform throughout the show; her comedic timing was spot on for all three.

Then there are the two characters billed as "Clown 1" and "Clown 2," and while that title is not inappropriate, it is not really a big enough word to describe the breadth of their comic performances. Yes, they play over 150 zany characters, making it seem like a cast of thousands, and they do it at breakneck speed. That they play them so well is a credit to their director and their comedic talent.

Daniel Ross Willey, often seen at Naugatuck's Phoenix Stage Company, is the perfect actor for such a role and he did not disappoint. Joe Harding displayed his skill for comedy and kept up with his younger partner in crime to help keep the audience laughing. Both actors changed their hilarious accents as often as they changed their costumes, and only occasionally could I not understand their lines. My favorite bit was a scene in trench coats set under a moveable lamppost.

Kudos to the stage crew in Chaplinesque costumes for effectively moving the clever set designed by Jameson Willey and Sharon A. Wilcox, sometimes in character. The projections designed by Ms. Wilcox and the costumes by Matthew Dettmer added a period stamp to the production. Naugatuck High School senior Michael Newman served as Assistant Stage Manager/Production Intern and ran the light board for the show. Expect strobe lights and fog, too.

Click here to listen to a podcast of Backstage with Johnny O's interview with director Katherine Ray and Dick Terhune on WZBG.

Ms. Ray and Ms. Wilcox will be co-directing the upcoming studio theatre production of Green Day's American Idiot in June. Ms. Wilcox will be doing the choreography and the Music Director will be announced. I can't wait for this one.

The 39 Steps continues next weekend. Sunday, January 18 at 2 PM, Friday, January 23 at 8 PM, Saturday, January 24 at 8 PM, and Sunday, January 25 @ 2PM.