“The 39 Steps” – ASU Gammage

This review aired on KBAQ April 22, 2010


Broadway Across America – Arizona, ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

Patrick Barlow has turned Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy/thriller “The 39 Steps” into a riotous stage comedy that pulls out every stage trick and gimmick to make it bright and funny. It includes fast-paced sight gags, very British humor, and even a bit of romance as a talented cast of four portrays 150 parts. This humorous bauble is here through Sunday at ASU Gammage.

The simple story served the classic film and two remakes. Richard Hannay, a boring man, meets a thick-accented lady who claims to be a spy. He takes her to his drab London flat where she is murdered. Even though he had nothing to do with her death, a mysterious organization that uses the show’s title is on his track forcing him to escape the manhunt for her killer. In his attempt to avoid the authorities, he travels all over the British Isles as the cast essays the odd people he encounters.

There are problems. The small show is dwarfed by the gigantic Gammage stage. “The 39 Steps” would work better in a tiny venue where the audience was literally on top of the cast and the onstage shenanigans. Crisp British accents and dialects are often tough to understand and the sound system doesn’t allow every humorous pun, jab, and joke to be fully heard. British humor is an acquired taste and the show grows repetitious as the second act drags because the show doesn’t provide anything new.

Director Maria Aitken pulls out every stage trick to keep the antics wildly playful, fun, and silly. The characters Richard meets on his travels are weird and are funny by their irreverence. With little scenery, Aitken keeps things lively, quick, and uses familiar stage jokes effectively so you’ll be amused and delighted by the silliness, the weird situations, and the wacky characters Richard meets.

The gifted four person ensemble is amazing at creating distinctive multiple characters. Only Ted Deasy plays a single character, Richard, and he does it with rigorous and colorful variety. Claire Brownell plays the murdered woman, Annabella Schmidt, but later essays the other women Richard meets. She never looks or sounds the same. Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson play the other men with comedic flourish and sparkle. There’s even a scene where we think there might be another actor but it’s done with comic illusion. These actors have a great time with the weirdoes they create and there’s even one frenetic scene where one guy plays two characters by using clever costume tricks.

“The 39 Steps” will delight you if British humor is your thing. “The 39 Steps” continues through April 25. For tickets, go to the ASU Gammage box office, any Ticketmaster box office, call 800-982-2787, or order online at www.asugammage.com.

Grade: C