Theatre Reviews
Sunday, December 23, 2012
'The 39 Steps' -- We Are Overwhelmed With Admiration and Glee

By C. S. Gilbert

Speechless. We're never speechless. It's very bad form for a critic. But grasping for an analysis of the Waterfront Playhouse's theatrical opener, "The 39 Steps" is how we're feeling at the moment.

The show is astonishing, spectacular, hilarious. Sim- ply one of the best produc- tions in the past two decades of Key West theater. "Angels in America," "Urinetown," "Match," a few others -- sure, they're contenders. But all in all, on the stage and, behind it, director and Waterfront artistic director Danny Weathers, has kicked ass all the way to Miami with this amazing, and amazingly challenging, show.

First things first: the actors. Brandon Beach, Erin McKenna, J.B. McLendon and David Black are wonderful. Brilliant! McLendon and Black are simply mind-boggling as they play umpteen different characters at a pace that would exhaust a marathoner: "Forbidden Broadway" on steroids. Black's been a star for years; let's add the others to the pantheon. They've established themselves in relatively few years and Key West now truly has a next generation of superb acting talent.

"The 39 Steps" is an intelligent spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's iconic thrillers and a huge hit that opened in Yorkshire, England in 2005, moved to London in 2006 and is still running there. The play was mounted on Broadway where it won raves and it has played all over the world, including Australia and India.

This is a devilishly challenging show, not only to actors but to theater technicians. A great deal of its effectiveness depends upon spot-on sound and light cues. Bravos to lighting designer Kim Hanson and light-board operator Dennis Blake but also to sound designers Weathers and Dan Simpson and costumer Leigh Hooten, assisted by Ruth Cahoon and Carmen Rodriguez, plus everybody else backstage. Keeping it all together, of course, is stage manager Trish Manley. Bravo, too, to Michael Boyer and his crew for another set design of commanding stature and perfect detail, right down to box seats flanking the stage and the dust on the obligatory backstage fire extinguisher (toss some on the shiny red exit light bulb too, guys, OK?).

The pace of "The 39 Steps" is breathtaking. It's the exact antithesis of gently revelatory drama. The métier is clearly anti-realistic; there is no fourth wall across the proscenium and the actors relate (somewhat wryly) directly with the audience. The homage references to Hitchcock thrillers are clever and funny. But be warned -- the supersonic pace coupled with the varied accents of the multiple characters (a brilliant linguistic tour of England and Scotland) can be a tad bewildering. As one theatergoer commented, "If you don't like roller coasters maybe this show isn't for you." Nevertheless, we recommend it to anyone over age 12.

Be again warned: "The 39 Steps" rates a record-breaking four Depends.