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Hilarity Meets Hitchcock in “The 39 Steps”

"The 39 Steps" cast includes (from left) Betsy Thompson Henderson, Jason Peck, Jesse R. Gephart, and Robbie Gay (photo by Lauren Kennedy)

"The 39 Steps" cast includes (from left) Betsy Thompson Henderson, Jason Peck, Jesse R. Gephart, and Robbie Gay (photo by Lauren Kennedy)

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy will open its seventh season with Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, English actor, comedian, and playwright Patrick Barlow’s 2005 farce that preshow publicity claims brings hilarity to Hitchcock, on June 8-12 and 15-19 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center in downtown Raleigh, NC. New York City actor and director Richard Roland will stage the show with a stellar cast that includes two of the Triangle’s finest comic actors — Betsy Thompson Henderson and Jesse R. Gephart — plus Washington, DC actor Robbie Gay and Raleigh actor Jason Peck.

Richard Roland, who made his directorial debut last summer when he staged Barefoot in the Park for Hot Summer Nights, says that it was the humor of Patrick Barlow’s knee-slapping stage adaptation of The 39 Steps that most attracted him to the script. He confesses, “One of my guilty pleasures is a show that has just enough tongue in its cheek. Also [there is] the challenge of having four actors play a total (and unofficial) count of some 100+ characters!”

Set in Scotland and London and adapted from John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 edge-of-your-seat motion-picture thriller based on that fingernail-biting espionage story, The 39 Steps had its world premiere in June 2005 at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, England. Revised and redubbed John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, the show had its London premiere, directed by Maria Aitken, on Aug. 10, 2006 at the Tricycle Theatre, and transferred in September 2006 to the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End, where it won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

After having its U.S. premiere on Sept. 19, 2007 at Boston University, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps made its Broadway debut, also directed by Maria Aitken, on Jan. 15, 2008 at American Airlines Theatre, later transferred to the Cort Theatre and then to the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it played for a combined total of 771 performances before closing on Jan. 10, 2010. The show starred Charles Edwards as Richard Hannay, Jennifer Ferrin as Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret, Cliff Saunders as Man #1, and Arnie Burton as Man #2, with Man #1 and Man #2 each playing dozens of characters.

Nominated for six 2008 Tony Awards®, including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play, The 39 Steps won Tonys for Best Lighting Design of a Play (Kevin Adams) and Best Sound Design of a Play (Mic Pool), plus a 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.

After closing on Broadway, The 39 Steps reopened Off-Broadway at the New World Stages Stage I on April 15, 2010, and played there until Jan. 16, 2011.

“I first saw the show in New York during its original Broadway run,” recalls Hot Summer Nights guest director Richard Roland. “This is my first time working on The 39 Steps in any fashion.”

When the curtain rises, Roland says, “Richard Hannay (Robbie Gay) is suddenly thrust into an international spy/murder mystery/thriller after a beautiful and mysterious woman who comes to him for help is killed in his apartment. She leaves him just enough information to send him on a dangerous journey from London to the Scottish Highlands, forever pursued by an evil organization which will stop at nothing to silence him.

“Along his journey, Hannay meets beautiful and intriguing women (Betsy Henderson) as well as countless characters (all played by Jason Peck and Jesse Gephart) who both help and hinder his quest to find out what this thing called ‘The 39 Steps’ is and why it threatens the safety of Great Britain,” Richard Roland explains.

In addition to director Richard Roland, the Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy creative team for Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps includes husband-and-wife producers Alan Campbell and Lauren Kennedy, fellow producers Adam Twiss and Hilary Russo, set and lighting designer Chris Bernier, costume designer A. Christina Giannini, wig designer Patti DelSordo, properties manager Devra Thomas, the aptly named sound designer Will Mikes, and stage manager Andrew Hayworth.

Director Richard Roland says, “The biggest challenge [in staging The 39 Steps on a firecracker rehearsal schedule] is working with the four actors and the design team to recreate the film (with a bit of self-awareness added) with minimal sets. The actors create the atmosphere; and suggestive set pieces, props, and costumes round that out.

“Sound elements are very important too,” claims Roland, “as we need to remember we’re watching a film unfold onstage. Subsequently, scene and location changes need to happen as smoothly and as cinematically as possible!”

In addition to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (June 8-12 and 15-19), Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy’s 2011 season includes Sirius/XM’s Broadway host Seth Rudetsky’s Big Fat Broadway Show (which is SOLD OUT) and Rudetsky’s Master Class on auditioning (June 13); The Marvelous Wonderettes (June 29-July 3 and July 6-10), a musical revue of 1950s and 1960s songs created by Roger Bean; A Field of Glory (July 20-24 and 27-31) a new original play written by Sharon Talbot; Violet: A New Musical (Aug. 17-21 and 24-28), with music by Jeanine Tesori and a book by Brian Crawley, based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by N.C. author Doris Betts; and the concert Oh, What a Night! (Aug. 31 and Sept. 1), which features songs from shows too big for Hot Summer Nights.

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE 39 STEPS at 8 p.m. June 8-11, 3 p.m. June 12, 8 p.m. June 15-18, and 3 p.m. June 19 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $22 ($18 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).

BOX OFFICE: 866/811-4111 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/27655.

SHOW: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/2011season/39steps.asp.

SERIES: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/2011season.asp.

PRESENTER: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/.

VENUE: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/venue/kennedy-theatre.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/directions.

PARKING: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/parking.

OTHER LINKS:

The Book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Nine_Steps (Wikipedia), http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/558 (e-text from Project Gutenberg) and http://www.archive.org/details/39_steps_0807_librivox (audio recording by Librivox.org).

The Film: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/92939/The-39-Steps/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_(1935_film) (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/ (Internet Movie Database).

The Play: http://www.love39steps.com/ (official website), http://www.39stepsny.com/ (Broadway website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_(play) (Wikipedia), http://ibdb.com/show.php?ID=469214 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&title=The 39 Steps (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

Study Guide: http://www.39stepsny.com/Education Pack_2010.pdf (The Mousetrap Foundation).

The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Barlow (Wikipedia), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=469223 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=people&first=Patrick&middle=&last=Barlow (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

Richard Roland: http://www.richardroland.com/ (official website).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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