What? You say Orson Welles and Cole Porter wrote a musical together? How is it we have never heard of it! Well, per the folks that put on Lost Musicals, the original production was so expensive – with a cast of seventy, movies, and a nicely realized circus midway through – that it only made it for seventy-five performances. It never made it to London, its sets were burned, and it appears there was just not much left besides the script and the songs. And there it sat until the 90s! For me, it was like a GIANT PILE OF CASH that for some odd reason had been left sitting in the middle of the street for fifty years. WHY? Did Porter suck? Was the plot no longer conceivable in the, er, post-atomic world? (Not likely as it debuted in 1946.)
As reassembled by Ian Marshall Fisher, Around the World is a show with some really great songs, lively performances, and – it has to be said – a bit of a gap in the storyline. How does Phileas Fogg (David Firth) get from Hong Kong to California? How did his American manservant Passepartout (Lance Fuller) reunite with his Oirish girlfriend Molly (Rebekah Hinds)? The running time was still a substantial (near) three hours, but perhaps a little more exposition was called for. (Apparently in the Pacific gap, Wells had a Yokohaman circus …. somewhat beyond the budget of this performance but fun to imagine.)
The songs, though, are just really great, if occasionally shockingly racist. I had a pretty hard time stomaching “Missus Aouda” – a comic song about suttee. It was just black, black, black, but on the peformers carried! Truth be told, there were only nine songs in total, all witty in the Porter style, but my how sensibilities have changed. I enjoyed greatly the outrageous policemen (Michael Roberts and James Vauight, I believe), with their choreographed bouncing and twitching, but when we had Egyptians who were all dishonest and smelled, and a Chinese woman who was, of course, selling opium while waving her fan and acting completely “inscrutable” – was this really acceptable 70 years ago? I’ll say that the Americans and British were also mocked, but we (Americans) were only portrayed as ignorant, not subhuman. It just all left me flabbergasted.
That said, there was still lots to enjoy in this production, and I was pleased that they’d gone the extra mile and added more choreography than for the normal show. For a fan of Cole Porter, or someone who’s curious about those gaps in musical theater history, this show was a good investment of both time and money … the kind of thing that made you wonder, “What if?”
(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, Octover 20th, 2013. It continues at Sadler’s Wells Lilian Baylis studio on the 3, 9 and 10 of November, then moves to New York City’s Mint Theater from December 6-12th.)