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Review: Public Theater's production is a fast-paced journey

Contrary to the Cunard Line's oft-quoted slogan, getting there is more than half the fun of Pittsburgh Public Theater's "Around the World in 80 Days."

Like its hero, Phileas Fogg, this production travels with a minimum of baggage.

Playwright Mark Brown's stage adaptation traverses most of the same territory as Jules Verne's Victorian novel with five actors, a minimum of props, few chairs, circular staircase, back wall of versatile doors and cleverly painted floor that resembles a game board.

The drama of the evening is supplied by the race against the calendar journey undertaken when the unemotional, always rational Fogg bets his British club mates a small fortune that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.

Ron Bohmer and Jeffrey Kuhn star as the methodical Fogg and his servant Passepartout.

That leaves three other performers — Tom Beckett, Richard B. Watson and Meera Rohit Kumbhani — to transform themselves into the remaining 31 characters, which include ships' captains, priests, train conductors, servants, a detective, judges and newspaper reporter Nellie Bly.

Kumbhani spends most of the show's second half as Aouda, the woman Fogg and Passepartout rescue from certain death.

She's a charming and vibrant presence that makes her a very human contrast to Bohmer's more rigid, remote, duty-bound Fogg.

So, Bohmer and Kuhn are tasked with making those lightening-fast, multiple changes in character that have become an anticipated part of the fun of similar shows such as "The 39 Steps" and "The Mask of Moriarty."

Along with support from director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, costume designer Martha Bromelmeier, lighting designer Kirk Bookman and sound designer Zach Moore, the cast is tasked with helping to create the obstacles and supports of the journey, such as a typhoon, a Wild West shoot out and transportation by elephant and wind-powered snow sledge.

Needless to say, this is an evening of theater that neither is deep nor serious, although it does feel constrained to wrap up with a minor message about what's important in life.

Entertainment and inventiveness drive the show with an emphasis on silliness, funny accents and costume cleverness.

The downside of this is the actors' tendency to let us know that this is all in fun by overemphasizing the presentational nature of the show or losing their ability to keep a straight face during some over-the-top moments of giddiness.

The show runs two hours with one intermission, which seems a bit longer than necessary. Fortunately, Milgrom and the cast mirror Fogg's sure-footed, unflappable progress by keeping a fast pace throughout.

Additional Information:

At a glance

'Around the World in 80 Days'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Public Theater

When: Through May 13 at 8 p.m. most Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Saturdays, Sundays and May 10; 7 p.m. most Sundays and May 8

Admission: $28-$60, or $15.75 for age 26 and younger

Where: O'Reilly Theater, Downtown

Details: 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org

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