Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
It's been nearly two years since I saw and raved about The 39 Steps at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, during it's pre-Broadway warm-up.
I was so enthusiastic in an e-mail to Steve on Broadway that he encouraged me, as he'd done many times before, to start a blog. I'd always declined, thinking I didn't have anything to say, but this time I took the plunge. And my review became the first-ever Gratuitous Violins post.
So naturally, I've always had a soft spot for this plucky little British comedy. As the play moved from its limited Roundabout Theatre Company engagement to an open-ended run, I've followed its fortunes and always hoped that someday, I'd have a chance to revisit it on Broadway.
Well during my last trip I had a free Sunday afternoon and at about 20 minutes before curtain time, I walked up to the TKTS booth in Times Square to buy a half-price ticket. I'm so glad I did because The 39 Steps is just as funny and witty and inventive as I remembered it from Boston.
The story, adapted by Patrick Barlow, is an absolutely faithful and hilarious retelling of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 black and white film about a man who finds himself caught up in an international spy ring. And it includes many clever shoutouts to the master of suspense.
Sean Mahon plays Richard Hannay, a suave, self-assured 1930s-type hero. And the lovely Jill Paice (from Curtains!) handles all the female roles, including a secret agent and a woman who gets involved with Hannay quite against her will.
Through some very quick changes, two other actors - Arnie Burton, who was in the show in Boston, and at my performance, Cameron Folmar, play all of the other characters - lots of them. And they are terrific. They play a big role in making The 39 Steps so much fun to watch.
One of the things I love about The 39 Steps is that it's so theatrical - with only four actors, minimal props and no fancy special effects, it relies a great deal on the imagination of the audience. I love how it does so much with so little. It's one of the most unique shows I've seen.
And not only does it re-create the Hitchcock movie, it re-creates the style and feel of the movie. It's like seeing a 1930s thriller on stage, only with a playful yet respectful nudge and a wink that you don't get from the original.
The show won two Tony awards, for Mic Pool's sound design and Kevin Adams' lighting. The first time, I was straining a bit to hear from the back of the orchestra. But in the 589-seat Helen Hayes Theatre, I could hear everything and I was really impressed with the range of sounds Pool has to create and how much they contributed to my enjoyment of the play.
In my earlier review, I questioned whether you'd get as much out of The 39 Steps if you hadn't seen the movie. But I think it does hold up well on its own. The couple sitting next to me hadn't seen the movie and they were laughing just as hard as I was.
There's always so much new to see on Broadway, not to mention off-Broadway, that I rarely get a chance to see a show I loved for the second time. I'm so glad I had that chance with The 39 Steps. And, if I ever have the opportunity, I'd even see it a third time.