Hitchcock classic leavened with funny business

Three-quarters of the cast of "The 39 Steps": (from left) Paul Riopelle, Dan Hodge, and David Hess. They portray about 150 characters.
Three-quarters of the cast of "The 39 Steps": (from left) Paul Riopelle, Dan Hodge, and David Hess. They portray about 150 characters.
Posted: March 25, 2011

Let's raise a glass to shtick, the little, often unscripted physical stage business that can turn a moment of fun into a heightened laff-riot. And here's a toast to The 39 Steps - the show as well as the 1935 spy thriller that Alfred Hitchcock brought to the screen as a model of filmmaking sophistication.

There is no shtick to speak of in the movie, but the 2008 Broadway adaptation bulges with it. In fact, funny business drives everything about the play; even the plot takes a backseat. The Walnut Street Theatre's production, which opened Wednesday, is a coproduction with Lancaster's professional Fulton Theatre and has everything from flashlights shining through billowing fog to people climbing through handheld window frames to escape, to . . . well, I won't give the bits away.

Shtick is often a director's prerogative - a way to enhance storytelling and expound on the script without altering its words. Sometimes, it adds exclamation points to what's already happening - witness Larry, Moe, and Curly.

When the stage business is the storytelling, you've got a special opportunity (or, maybe, challenge). William Roudebush, a frequent director at the Walnut, mostly seizes - or confronts - it with style. Some of the bits work better than others, which is to be expected in two acts full of them, but this version of The 39 Steps, with lots of different business from that of the Broadway production, is amusing and fleet.

The adaptation of the film by Patrick Barlow is itself a challenge, because it's unclear whether the show mocks the Hitchcock film or is a tribute to it. (It helps to know the movie in order to fully appreciate the show, but a home screening isn't necessary.) No matter how clever the production, the show is doggedly silly - but unlike the Broadway version, the Walnut's doesn't pummel us with constant over-arched eyebrows and wildly charged interchanges.

Even though not a word is different from the original show, which had largely the same script as the movie, the Walnut has the feel of sticking closer than the Broadway hit to the film about an everyday guy dragged into a spy adventure that puts him in danger and involves a slew of characters.

Roudebush couldn't have staged the show as successfully without the agile cast of four actors who portray these people - about 150 in all. The vast majority are performed by Dan Hodge and Paul Riopelle, who would be making a fortune were they paid by the character. They maneuver scenery, master quick costume changes (in front of you, sometimes), and inhabit showmen, spies, cops, innkeepers, thugs, conductors, townsfolk, and others in seamless flashes.

Joan Hess plays the show's three very different women, all of them with style. David Hess (her husband in real life) has one role only: Our Hero, the guy who gets sucked into all this adventure.

Christopher Colucci's melodramatic sound design is so important to bringing off these overstated characters that he might as well be the fifth performer.


The 39 Steps

Through May 1 on the Walnut Street Theatre's main stage, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10-$80. Information: 1-800-982-2787 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage.

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