A rip-snorting version of the Jules Verne classic "Around the World in 80 Days" is bubbling around somewhere inside the Lookingglass Theatre production of that name, just waiting to be unleashed. But on opening night, this Chicago import, being presented by Center Stage for the holidays, felt more like a well-appointed jumbo jet that kept taxiing smoothly along, never receiving final clearance to take off.
Given all the strong, basic ingredients present in the venture, altitude might well be reached in subsequent performances. And even if things stay more or less the same, there's certainly enough entertainment value in what Center Stage is marketing as a "family-friendly show" to provide a nice break from shopping malls, sensational trials and what not. Still, it's hard not to wish for more.
The idea of condensing big, well-known works into fast-moving theatrical vehicles is tried-and-true. "Around the World in 80 Days" makes as good a target as any for this sort of treatment, what with the fanciful tale of adventures from continent to continent as British gentleman Phileas Fogg seeks to win his circumnavigation wager in 1872.
As playwright, Laura Eason has crammed a lot of the novel's eventful business into her script, but without adding enough in the way of humor, spice and surprise to keep things freshly, continually involving. Some events could use more detail, others less.
As director, Eason applies bright touches along the way (the sound of Fogg's harrumphing club buddies, to name one), but she allows the pace to slacken repeatedly. A few more bolts of momentum could make all the difference. The very opening scene, for example, meant to establish Fogg's obsessive punctuality and reliance on routine, could be over in half the time and make the same point.
That methodical start sets a low-key tone that doesn't change very much, except when, thankfully, colorful props pop up from a trap door to enliven Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's handsome, if rather heavy and bookcase-y, set design.
Those bursts of fun stage business, including a nifty elephant and a storm-tossed schooner, will be especially appreciated by younger viewers having trouble following the dialogue. A subtler prop, one that enables an actor to manipulate a small table and give the impression of sea-induced motion, is quite the charmer.
On Wednesday, a little miscalculation with that table led to a crashing cup and saucer - and some endearing improvisation from Philip R. Smith, whose determinedly unruffled portrayal of Fogg proved engaging. Kevin Douglas brought abundant physicality and personality to the role of Passepartout, Fogg's lithe French valet with a penchant for getting into scrapes.
Usman Ally handled various assignments, including the helpful Mr. Naidu, with aplomb. Joe Dempsey caught the humble-bumble nature of Inspector Fix neatly. As Mrs. Aouda, the Parsi woman rescued from a funeral pyre during Fogg's trek across India, Ravi Batista was effective, if a little too reserved at times. The nimble, well-matched ensemble included an especially resourceful, appealing performance by Erika Ratcliff in a variety of roles.
The production includes an atmospheric background score by Kevin O'Donnell that occasionally, and not very memorably, breaks into song or dance. A major asset is the lighting by Lee Kennan, which complements the action at every turn. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes provide period and geographic flavor.
In the end, the earnest, affectionate nature of "Around the World in 80 Days" is never in doubt. All the show needs is a stronger tail wind.
If you go
"Around the World in 80 Days" runs through Dec. 20 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10 to $60. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org for showtimes.