The Asolo Repertory Theatre’s latest installment in its foray into young people’s theatre was by far its strongest and most universally appealing. With a simplistic set design comprised primarily a sky-high stack of suitcases, a small smattering of very smart black umbrellas, and symphonic lighting entirely in tune with the performances, director Theresa Heskins took the audience on an epic journey across continents and cultures.
Phileas Fogg (Andrew Pollard), an eccentric Englishman, wagers an extraordinary bet with his small coterie of friends that he can traverse the world in eighty days. Pollard’s fastidious yet calm, gentle demeanor and his passion for schedules synergizes with the outrageous and kind-spirited Passepartout (Michael Hugo), his French valet. The two set off on a whirlwind adventure requiring precision timing to ensure that they return at exactly 9pm eighty days after they depart.
Hugo is a wonderful addition to the proud Sarasota circus tradition, with his rubbery body and elastic face, he is able to contort himself to get himself both into and out of every manner of elaborate jam. His international adventures range from a comical slapstick fight in an Indian monastery after illegally wearing boots indoors to smoking a pipe filled with “magic potion” that puts him immediately to sleep. With help from the audience and his sizeable wit, he is able to keep his employer on schedule and even manages to help him have fun in the process.
As the trip wears on, there is quite a bit of intrigue as the travelers are constantly followed by Inspector Fix (Dennis Herdman) who believes that Fogg may have recently robbed the Bank of England. However Fogg and Passepartout are always one step ahead of the hapless Fix. The two are also joined by Mrs. Aouda (Kirsten Foster) after Fogg rescues her from certain death.
Fogg and Aouda are a lovely pair, sheepishly spending their days traveling together by boat, train, sledge, and even elephant – all the while Passepartout assists them with his redoubtable spirit and charm. Their fondness for one another grows as they rack up miles around the globe.
This clever production is certainly pleasing for adults – the crowd was in stitches opening night. Yet, I wonder what the younger digital native set will make of an elephant made of fabric and a running gag of flying money. The production harkens back to a simpler time when we could rely upon our imagination to fill in the details suggested by lighting, costumes, and first-rate acting. All hail Asolo Rep for staging “Around the World” giving us the opportunity to take a journey, trust in the outcome, and give our oft-forgotten imaginative spirits a much-needed work out.