REVIEW: 39 STEPS

at Miner’s Alley Playhouse

by Owen Niland

Hitchcock is master of film, his style is immediately recognizable and the elements he refined in his 53 films are relied upon and referenced by filmmakers even today. This highly stylized form is, of course, rife for parody which Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller The 39 Steps is among the finest.

Barlow’s show, which originally toured English townships for years before landing on London’s West End for nine years, distills Hitch’s spy thriller into a comic romp which whisks the audience from the music halls of London to the moors of Scotland and back again. While our unwitting hero Richard Hannay (Casey Andree) strives to unravel the secrets of who or what the 39 steps are, clear himself of the murder of an elegant yet mysterious woman, escape the clutches of an evil genius’ henchmen, and save the country – all while maintaining his very attractive pencil mustache!

Andree’s elegant man about town Hannay is joined on stage by three additional actors who assume dozens of roles. Alaina Beth Reel plays our three stock “Hitchcock Women”: The scheming femme fatal Annabella Schmidt, the timid yet alluring country maiden Pamela, and the domineering ice-cold blonde Margaret. The remaining 40 or 50 incidental characters (including traveling corset salesmen, spies, heavies, milk men, maids, innkeepers, police, railroad conductors, among many others) are taken on with great comedic flair by two “Clowns” played here by John Wittbrodt and Sean Michael Cummings.

It goes without saying that tongues are planted firmly in cheeks at Miners Alley Playhouse as director Josh Hartwell puts these madcap players through their paces. The real star of any production of The 39 Steps is the direction and design; how the script intertwines with the production’s stagecraft to convince the audience that a spare stage, a few trunks and found objects (harkening back to the show’s origins touring the English countryside) can become anything from the London Palladium, to a shack on the edge of the Scottish moors, to a train barreling across the Forth Bridge.

Here on the intimate Miners Alley stage Hartwell has elected to trim away all but the barest bits of sets and props in favor of relying on overhead projection and his cast’s considerable comedic talents to create atmosphere and set scenes throughout the show. Unfortunately, The 39 Steps needs more magic – some stagecraft or effects – to bring a “wow” factor to the production; otherwise it falls into the trap of pantomime, a Hitchcockian spy thriller version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.

It’s a credit to the actors that the lack of design around them doesn’t seriously interrupt the audience’s enjoyment of Barlow’s script. Andree’s Hannay is a true bemused British gentleman out of his depth, never letting his waterlogged overcoat or the bumbling coppers around him get under his skin or upset his “stiff upper lip”. The various women Reel takes on are each enjoyable interpretations of the archetypes Hitchcock infamously developed in his films. Reel’s costumes (designed by Susan Rhamsdorff-Terry), especially the slinky satins worn by sultry Annabella Schmidt in the first act, are delight to behold. Finally, the Wittbrodt and Cumming’s Clowns bring a manic, absurd and quite welcome energy to the show. With a knowing wink to the audience while barely holding their multitude of costumes and characters together is a delight to behold.

Miners Alley has pulled together a spare version of The 39 Steps, buoyed by strong comedic performances. While some stage magic would have been welcome, all together the storytellers here craft a wild, atmospheric and entertaining ride which will leave audiences chuckling.

Miners Alley Playhouse is intriguing audiences with the award-winning masterpiece THE 39 STEPS playing March 23rd through April 29th. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available by calling 303-935-3044 or online at www.minersalley.com.  Miners Alley Playhouse is located at 1224 Washington Avenue. Golden, CO.

PHOTO CREDIT:  Sarah Roshan Photography

 

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