by Kenneth LaFave

It says something that the two best Arizona Theatre Company productions so far this season have been colorful shows that diverted us from our daily concerns and celebrated the ability of actors to engage our imaginations and (dangerous word here) entertain us. We’ve been swayed by the tunes and chuckles of Xanadu and, now, the silly but lovable juvenile fantasies of Around the World in 80 Days captivates.

Director David P. Saar was the perfect director for this childlike piece, given his regular gig as artistic director at Phoenix’s Childsplay, where since 1977 he has overseen the theatrical initiation of generations of young theatergoers. Magnificently abetted by imaginative scenic designer Carey Wong, Saar has taken playwright Mark Brown’s gadgety adaptation of the Jules Verne classic and played with it like a child plays with fancy toys, both believing the fantasy he’s constructing and cognizant of its fakery. Among other miracles of stagecraft, Saar’s cast assembles and “rides” an elephant, pushes a little toy train around a railing while making us believe they are “in” it and morphs from character to another with bewildering rapidity.

Around the World in 80 Days is surely the most prosaic of Verne’s novels. It does not travel From the Earth to the Moon or send someone Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or take the reader on a Journey to the Center of the Earth. Its hero merely circles the globe on what was then (1872) a remarkably snug deadline. Phileas Fogg, a Frenchman’s idea of an Englishman, deadly cold and absurdly efficient, wagers 20,000 pounds sterling – that’s about $2 million in current currency – he can go round the world by rail and steamer in 80 days or less, aided only by the pluck and daring of his French valet, Jean Passepartout. (As the novel was written by a Frenchman, the valet saves the day more than once.)

Of course, complications arise. Fogg and Passepartout are dogged by one Detective Fix, who is convinced that Fogg is a thief. To slow things down further, Verne puts English propriety in its place by having Fogg fall quietly, if most ardently, in love. And talk about a “cute meet” – Fogg meets his beloved, the exotic Indian woman Aouda, when she is about to be thrown on a funeral pyre with her late husband, a quaint Brahmin practice now happily abandoned.

Mark Anders is a finely molded Fogg, all erect bearing and earnest visage. Yolanda London is the gracious and entrancing Aouda, but not before she dons a moustache and plays two trouser roles early on. In fact, only Anders, of the five cast members, gets by with but a single role. Even Jon Gentry ventures outside the part of Passepartout a bit, though it is as the spirited and disarmingly honest valet that he nearly steals the show. Gentry is both hilarious and teddy-bear adorable in the part, and in his scenes with Detective Fix, played to the hilt by Phoenix favorite Bob Sorensen, the two create a young readers’ take on existential questioning, a Waiting for Godot, Jr.

If you’re into counting, you’ll notice I’ve mentioned only four actors but said there were five. The fifth is the busy and remarkably chameleon-like Kyle Sorrell, who plays about 17 vastly different roles, from one of Fogg’s club fellows to an Indian guide to an American redneck soldier.

If your budget disallows circumnavigating the globe for real, ATC’s Around the World in 80 Days is a great way to do it in about 120 minutes, including intermission.

Arizona Theatre Company

Around the World in 80 Days
Through April 13
The Herberger Theatre
602-256-6995
www.arizonatheatre.org