Taking Steps toward a lively evening

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The stellar cast of TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps comprises (from left) Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown. Below: Dines and Phillips take a step closer to romance. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Whatever will we do when the British have thoroughly unstuffed themselves? That stiff-upper-lip stuff and famous British reserve have long been targets for comedy – especially by the British themselves.

We love to lampoon the stalwart Brit character – the rigid veneer that provided such fodder for Kneehigh Theatre Company’s brilliant adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which we saw here at American Conservatory Theater. British frigidity was practically its own character in that show, which threw two placid lovers – a doctor and a housewife – into an ocean of romantic emotion and took incredible glee in the destruction of their noble facades.

I couldn’t help thinking about Brief Encounter during The 39 Steps, the rollicking stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

Both Coward and Hitchcock (working on an adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel) enjoy throwing prim-and-proper Brits into tumultuous events and watching their reserve knock against passion and danger.

Stage adaptor Patrick Barlow goes Hitchcock one better. He turns the tumult into a farcical fracas that allows four adept actors to play 140 different characters.

A hit on London’s West End in 2006, the play became Broadway’s longest-running comedy two years later. The touring production played San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in December of 2009, and now Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has cast it with a quartet of local favorites.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening of mystery mayhem and slapstick espionage. Kelley has cast an irresistible quartet of actors to create the whirlwind, and the result is two hours of constant laughs.

39 Steps 2Mark Anderson Phillips is Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Bored, he craves something mindless and trivial, so he goes to the theater. Naturally. There he meets a classic femme fatale, a German named Annabella Schmidt played by Rebecca Dines with an accent think as strudel.

When Annabella comes home with Richard and ends up with a knife in her back, the adventure begins. In true Hitchcock style, Richard becomes an innocent man on the run, and his journey takes him to Scotland, where invaluable comedians Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown chew the accent as if it were haggis-flavored taffy.

Joe Ragey’s set creates a pretty but second-rate theater complete with elevated box seats on the sides, and the actors seem to be playing the theater’s company actors. Phillips is the vain leading man (the narration keeps emphasizing how handsome Richard is, what with his wavy brown hair and pencil moustache) and Dines is the beleaguered leading lady. Hiatt and Cassidy are the hammy scene-stealers who can’t help playing the show as if it were their own vaudevillian showcase.

The costumes by B. Modern add fuel to the comic fire, especially when Brown does drag. His buxom Scottish hotelier is hilarious, while Hiatt’s villainous Professor sports an impressive two-tone pompadour that wouldn’t be out of place in a band like Josie and the Pussycats.

Act 2 of The 39 Steps loses some steam, especially in a long hotel room sequence, but most of the show is filled with deft physical comedy and cute allusions to other Hitchcock films (the Psycho reference is particularly funny).

What’s especially rewarding about a show like this is how spectacularly theatrical it is. With cargo trunks, ladders and a lot of stage smoke, four skilled actors create a world that sucks you in despite the inanity of it all. You’re laughing at the farce of it all, but the story exerts a certain pull because the characters are distinct, the locations are effectively evoked and you’re having a grand time enjoying it on a number of levels.

The 39 Steps isn’t exactly a stairway to paradise, but it’s definitely more than three dozen steps in the right direction.


TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps continues an extended run through Feb. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24-$79. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

Warm and wonderful Christmas Memories

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Penny Fuller as Sook and Gabriel Hoffman as Buddy (foreground) fly kites on Christmas morning while Joshua Park as older Buddy revisits the scene in A Christmas Memory, a TheatreWorks world-premiere musical. Below: Fuller (left), Cathleen Riddley (center) and Hoffman sing “Mighty Sweet Music.” Photos by Mark Kitaoka


You can keep your Shreks and your Lemony Snickets. Give me the human warmth of a corny holiday musical any day.

I use the word “corny” with love – if it’s not a little corny, a little sentimental, then it’s not really a holiday musical. And A Christmas Memory at the Lucie Stern Theatre, a TheatreWorks production, is a genuine holiday musical.

In its world-premiere production, A Christmas Memory hits all the right notes in every sense. The score by Larry Grossman (music) and Carol Hall (lyrics) is appealingly old-fashioned and catchy. There are a couple numbers that actually make you believe the charms of well-made musical theater are ageless. And the book by Duane Poole captures the magic of the Truman Capote story while finding effective ways of filling it out. The story, first published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1956, is short and so vivid it’s almost like poetry. The musical is just as vivid, in part, because its creators have hewed so closely to the original but without making the finished product seem hampered by the faithfulness.

Director Robert Kelley is always reliable at the helm of a new musical, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. There’s so much heart on stage that it’s absolutely impossible to avoid getting pulled into the story of young Buddy (as Capote was known as a boy) and his elderly cousin Sook as they prepare their annual Christmas fruitcakes and navigate a world that doesn’t usually allow a boy and an old lady to be best friends.

It’s all about the golden glow of memories here as Poole’s adaptation employs an older version of Capote (Joshua Park) coming back to the old farmhouse about 20 years after he lived there with his two spinsters cousins and their hypochondriac brother. Steven B. Mannshardt‘s lights burnish the stage in warm hues, and Joe Ragey‘s sets are like memory itself – detailed fragments that conjure she shape of life in Monroeville, Alabama in the early ’30s when the Depression had the nation in its clutch.

Buddy (Gabriel Hoffman on opening night, Peter Heintz is the alternate), who is 7 in the story but seems slightly older here, and Sook (Penny Fuller), who’s in her 60s, are anything but depressed. Sook is something of a child herself, so she and Buddy are, essentially, peers. They are looked after by Jennie (Eileen Barnett) and Seabon (Richard Farrell), whom Capote refers to in the story thus: “Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them.”

The musical is much more aware of them, and, in fact, they get their own songs, and so does the housekeeper, Anna Stabler (Cathleen Riddley). There’s another added character here, and that’s Buddy’s childhood friend Nelle Harper (played by Jennifer Chapman on opening night, Maggie Brown is the alternate), who would grow up to be Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird in which Capote appeals as the character Dill. In a nice bit of congruence, Hoffman played Dill in TheatreWorks’ To Kill a Mockingbird, making this the second time he’s played Capote this year.

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As marvelous as the supporting cast is, this is really all about Sook and Buddy. Fuller and Hoffman in the roles are incredibly dear—there’s just no better word for it. In his brief prose portrait, Capote makes you care about Sook and Buddy as if they were your own kin, and something similar happens here. Sook doesn’t seem quite as simple as she does in the story, but Fuller is luminous and makes Sook earnest and grounded in reality – even if her reality is slightly off-kilter. Hoffman, a veritable TheatreWorks veteran at this point, is a revelation.

The score, so wonderfully played by music director/keyboardist William Liberatore and his six-piece orchestra, includes some real gems, chief among them is the toe-tapper “Mighty Sweet Music.” Sook and Buddy’s “Alabama Fruitcake” captures the essence of Capote’s story beautifully, and “Paper and Cotton” could be the Christmas standard that emerges from the show.

“Buddy’s Midnight Adventure,” though tangential to the plot, illuminates Capote’s origins as a storyteller as he embellishes a midnight visit to Mr. HaHa, the bootlegger. And then there’s the previously mentioned “Kite Song,” which pulls at kite strings and heart strings.

A Christmas Memory is big-hearted and wonderful, that rarity among new musicals in that it doesn’t seem fraught with problems. By honoring (and loving) its source material, the show has found its sound and its emotional footing. Sure there are things that could be tweaked and strengthened, but this is a solid piece of work that should create Christmas memories for many years to come.


Read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” here.

Watch the 1966 TV version of A Christmas Memory on YouTube. Here’s the first of six parts with Capote himself narrating.


TheatreWorks’ A Christmas Memory continues through Dec. 26 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $24 to $79. Call 650 463-196 or visit www.theatreworks.org.