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Drama is not the word for "Around the World," Neither, surprisingly enough, is comedy--or musical, nor farce, nor phantasy. Orson Welles' first Mercury Theatre production in over five years is a peculiar extravaganza, conglomerated of elements from "Hellzapoppin," Barnum and Bailey's and the Ballet Russe.
With 40 seenes, 75 distinct characters, and upwards of 20 male and female singers and dancers, the 'play" gives a glimpse now and then of possibilities, but the preponderance of slaphappy dullness will probably cast it in the role of the most tremendous flop in Broadway history. Unsolved mystery number one is whether Welles backed the show himself or dragged in some incredibly gullible and affluent soul to share the preposterous burden.
Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" is the basis for Mr. Welles' effort. Adapted to afford frequent opportunities for song and dance, it ends up as a series of skits--and, like most revues, it runs hot and cold all evening. When Phileas Fogg is being seduced by Egyptian dancing girls on bluffed by Inspector Fix, he is funny--not so when he is saving Hindu widows from their pyres.
Every technique used by the theatre in the past and a half-dozen odd new ones are employed to take the Fogg caravan around the globe. Silent movies are projected on a screen every few scenes; trains move across the stage; eagles pick up heroes and carry them off; feathers drop on the audience from the ceiling. These peculiarities, combined with a change of scene without panse every five minutes, keep the hapless audience tense, probably more with fear than anything else.
The casting of "Around the World" is the most fortunate element in it. From the dancers (incidentally the most beautiful and the mot daring of this and probably any recent season) through Julie Warren and Mary Healy as the female leads to Alan (Falstaff) Reed as fix and Larry Laurence as Fogg's valet, Passport out, the east performs with unusual freshness, gaiety, and enjoyment.
Unfortunately--or perhaps fortunately--for this reviewer, Arthur Margetson was unable to take his place in the lead role of Fogg at last night's performance. The unbeatable Orson, who has only a bit part himself (that of a magician in a Japanese Circus which holds forth on the stage for ten minutes) took over after dire warnings to the audience. Despite his failure to remember a large percentage of the lines, he brought down the house with his completely jocular case on the stage.
With a little careful pruning in the first of the two acts, and a general improvement in timing, "Around the World" might bowl its audience over. At this point spectacle cannot make up for empty lines and contrived situations.
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