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CLO Cabaret's complicated comedy 'The 39 Steps' keeps suspense going

| Wednesday, May 18, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Allan Snyder, Luke Halferty, Megan Pickrell and Quinn Patrick Shannon in Pittsburgh CLO's 'The 39 Steps'
Archie Carpenter
Allan Snyder, Luke Halferty, Megan Pickrell and Quinn Patrick Shannon in Pittsburgh CLO's 'The 39 Steps'

Four actors playing 150 characters add up to an evening of theater that director Guy Stroman calls “an intricate piece, but great fun.”

The piece he's talking about is “The 39 Steps,” a combination espionage thriller and madcap comedy that runs May 19 to Aug. 14 at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.

“The 39 Steps” began in 1915 when John Buchan wrote a fast-paced, fish-out-of-water spy novel about Richard Hannay, an ordinary guy who becomes accidentally entangled with spies, codes, plots and the survival of the free world.

Before he knows it, Hannay finds himself accused of murder, unwillingly teamed up with a beautiful woman and pursued by the police while he attempts to figure out the meaning or identity of the mysterious 39 steps.

“It's so well-plotted that it does keep the suspense of the story going,” says Stroman, who directed the show in 2013 at Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown. “It's the story of Everyman sucked into an intrigue that's beyond his capacity.”

In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock directed the movie version that became a classic of suspense.

But it wasn't until 2005 that Patrick Barlow saw the comedic potential for Hannay's adventure and turned it into the spoofy but spell-binding tale that played on Broadway in 2008 and again in 2015.

Similar in style to popular predecessors such as “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “Greater Tuna,” Barlow's adaptation uses a limited cast to play a broad variety of characters that require quick changes in appearance, voice and sometimes gender.

In “The 39 Steps,” four performers play 150 characters that range from Hannay to the policemen, hotel owners, spies, mysterious women and railroad employees who assist or daunt the hero as he races across Scottish moors, dangles from railroad bridges and is pursued by a low-flying airplane.

“The task is to keep the suspense running,” Stroman says. “To do that, you need to cast it well. These four actors for this production are game for trying anything.”

Allan Snyder, who has appeared on Broadway in “Les Miserables” and recently finished a successful run in the national tour of “The Phantom of the Opera,” will play Hannay, and Megan Pickrell, who received her master of fine arts in acting from Penn State, will play all three of the play's women.

Luke Halferty, who just finished playing Aaron in CLO Cabaret's “First Date,” and Quinn Patrick Shannon, who has performed in three previous CLO Cabaret productions, are responsible for bringing to life the remaining 146 characters.

That means Halferty and Shannon are constantly changing clothing, donning and removing mustaches and wigs and changing the way they move and speak in their roles that range from traveling lingerie salesman to bleating sheep.

“It's not like they go off stage and wait in the wings to dance back on stage,” Stroman says.

As the evening progresses, so does the speed and intensity of everyone's performances.

“We keep a healthy rush of suspense and danger,” Stroman says.

Stroman also is increasing the intensity and humor of the show with about 300 sound and lighting effects.

”You can build the right intensity with seven seconds of music,” Stroman says.

Alice Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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