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Nonstop Laughs Promised in Little Theatre's Production of "The 39 Steps"

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(Poster design courtesy Springfield Little Theatre)
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No need for panic, ladies and gentlemen... mix a Hitchcock movie masterpiece with a juicy spy novel, then add a dash of Monty Python, and you have "The 39 Steps," a fast-paced comedic whodunit coming to Springfield Little Theatre at the Landers, 311 E. Walnut, Oct.19-28. Jamie Bower, who, along with Marni Erwin, co-directs this local production of the two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning treat, adds, “We also are throwing in a dash of ‘the play that goes wrong’ as well. We love that kind of humor.  And that’s the thing: it’s a fun script just on its own, but,” Bower says with a laugh, “we’ve taken some extra liberties!”

This version of “The 39 Steps” is a riotous blend of virtuoso performances and wildly inventive stagecraft.  An exceptionally hard-working cast of four plays literally dozens of characters—well, three of them do anyway, one of whom is Matthew Winston, who is listed in the credits as “Clown 1.”  “I think it rounds out to about a baker’s dozen.”  Conner Paulsen, credited as “Clown 2,” is doing another 12 or 13 characters, according to Jamie Bower.

Andrew McMurtrey, on the other hand, only plays one role in the entire show.  As I told him, “the rest of the cast must HATE you!” And little wonder: as McMurtrey freely admits, “I get to lay down in the bed backstage for a little while and rest... focus on one character.”  That character is Richard Hannay.  “He’s a Canadian Brit who’s just returned to London, and has feelings of complacency and boredom.  And so he’s looking for a little excitement in his life,” as McMurtrey describes him. And brother, does he find it! After encountering a thick-accented woman who claims to be a spy, he takes her home—and she gets murdered.  “Unwittingly,” McMurtrey continues, “he’s whisked away on a run for his life, being chased by police and master spies across the streets of London and the moors of Scotland. And it’s really about the eccentric characters that he meets along the way, who are there to help him... or rat him out... or hinder him....”

Rounding out the cast is Annie Crumbaugh, who director Jamie Bower says “is doing a great job. She plays the three women in the show, and so she has no small job either... except for Matt (Winston), who plays one of the women as well!  He’s Mrs. McGarrigle.”

The “39 Steps” of the title refers to the mysterious spy organization that’s hot on Hannay’s trail.  But as Andrew McMurtrey says, the famous 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, and this irreverent adaptation, are based on a 1915 novel by Scottish author John Buchan. And both take numerous liberties with the source material. “I think in the book the ’39 steps’ are actually thirty-nine steps--it’s a clue to a big mystery. The character I play is kind of a prototype of the ‘wrong man’ character that (Hitchcock) used in a lot of his movies. 'North by Northwest’ is very similar, so if you’ve seen that you’re going to really love this play.”  Keep in mind, though, that Hitchcock’s version of “39 Steps” was played utterly straight as a suspenseful spy thriller. “When you watch it--and then look at what WE’RE doing,” laughs director Jamie Bower, “it’s night and day, definitely!”

Regarding the “wildly inventive stagecraft,” Jamie Bower says, “it’s actually breaking a record for sound cues in a show—we have 91 sound cues in the show!  We thought about trying to do it live with Foley (i.e. live, real-time recreation of sounds), but we quickly threw that idea out.” Other than sound effects, the show utilizes fog machines, and even recreates a plane crash onstage—which Bower says is “definitely an audience favorite. Fortunately, the scenery itself is very simple, and you’d think it would be a ‘simple’ show (in terms of technical complexity).  But it’s not.”

Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:00pm, October 19 through 28.  Tickets range from $25-$30 and are available at the Landers box office, 869-1334, or at www.springfieldlittletheatre.org.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning "Arts News." Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's "Ozzie Award" in 2006.