Drury Lane’s ‘The 39 Steps’ Starring Gavin Lee is a Lesson in Physical Comedy Excellence

What makes a great actor? Well, if we are really honest about it, there isn’t just one “right” answer to that question.

There are great actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Marlon Brando, and Robert De Niro who achieved fame for their method acting. In these cases, the performer would strive for complete emotional identification with the part. For all intents and purposes, they become the character.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find names like Jim Carey, Adam Sandler, and Robin Williams who could delight audiences with the outrageous and absurd. Their comedy is the stuff of legends.

THE ART OF PHYSICAL COMEDY

No matter whether it is drama, comedy, or somewhere in between, great actors will make you feel. They will give you an experience no one else could. At least, not to the same level of emotional perfection.

Physical comedy is its own animal. This is a genre in which laughter comes from the actor’s manipulation of their body. In this case, it is the movements and actions of the actor, and not just the dialogue, that creates the different levels of laughter.

There have been many great physical comedy acts throughout the history of modern entertainment. The Three Stooges are the first comedians to come to mind as an example of physical comedy. Other greats include the Keystone Kops, Jerry Lewis, Martin Short, Chevy Chase, and Chris Farley.

The 39 Steps now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, IL, is a delicious entertainment masterpiece that director Johanna McKenzie Miller has lovingly filled with physical comedy from a small cast of amazing performers. Drury Lane’s The 39 Steps is a comedy that just has to be experienced – it is that good.

McKenzie Miller is a director whose work has fascinated and awed audiences at Drury Lane, Marriott Theatre, Steppenwolf Lookout Series, Northwestern University, and First Folio Theatre. Her resume as a performer is equally as impressive.

Although The 39 Steps is not a song and dance show, it is not surprising that a plethora of the director’s credits are in musical theater, because that is a genre that typically requires a great deal of physicality as well.

In short, everything McKenzie Miller has done up until now as a theater professional has made her the perfect choice to bring The 39 Steps to audiences at Drury Lane.

DRAMATIC HISTORY

The 39 Steps first achieved fame as a 1915 novel by John Buchan as a spy thriller about an inauspicious man thrust into international espionage as he tries to thwart a group of spies looking to steal British military secrets. It became a huge commercial success when Alfred Hitchcock adapted it into a cinematic thriller in 1935.

Fast forward a few decades, and Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon got the idea to adapt the spy thriller into a comedy. Their version debuted in 1995. However, in 2005 Patrick Barlow rewrote the script. The ensuing new production was a hit, transferring to London’s West End in 2006. It would go on to run for nine years.

In the U.S., The 39 Steps opened on Broadway in September of 2007. It would become the longest-running Broadway play in over seven years. It received a Tony nomination for Best Play and won the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.

As originally adapted for the stage, The 39 Steps is scripted with a small-scale venue in mind. I was initially worried that stretching the action of the script across Drury Lane’s expansive stage might be spreading it across too broad of a canvas. However, all worry was for naught.

Gavin Lee is a Broadway and West End headliner known for his spectacular work in musical theater. The Tony and Olivier Award nominee originated the role of Bert in the West End and Broadway productions of Mary Poppins and the role of Squidward in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical. In addition to a Tony nomination, he won the Drama Desk Award for creating the stage characterization of Squidward. Other famous roles include Lumière in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the title character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Thénardier in Les Misérables.

COMEDIC GENIUS

I suspect it is Lee’s background in musical theater and the mastery of intricate choreography that prepared him so well for The 39 Steps. The way he moves on stage is what makes this comedy a high-octane hilarious ball of fun.

Remember when I related that there isn’t just one type of great actor? Well, Gavin Lee is a great actor on many fronts, with physical comedy being one of them.

To turn the Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller into a stage comedy, playwright Barlow calls for four actors to play all the characters in the story. Lee plays Richard Hannay, the dashing leading man who gets wrapped up in an adventure of international espionage. The other characters are played by Zuhdi Boeri, Tom Detrinis, and Caitlyn Gallogly.

Gallogly plays all of Hannay’s love interests in the film-turned-play. She sports a wonderful array of wigs and costumes to differentiate the lady loves, but it is her impeccable work with physicality, intensity, and foreign accents that make her performance so wonderful.

Boeri and Detrinis are listed in the program merely as clowns. But such a title does little justice to the number of characters they play throughout the show. Often the actors must quickly rotate between multiple characters. They are a whirlwind of theatrical excellence.

Like Lee and Gallogly, the two clowns have all the trappings of physical comedy nailed down. Although the cast only has four players, they provide everything you need to have an amazing time taking in Drury Lane’s The 39 Steps. You will laugh like you never have before.

BEHIND THE SCENES

In addition to director McKenzie Miller, another key contributor to The 39 Steps is the work of Charlie Baker. Baker was responsible for the staging of comedic movement in the show, as well as intimacy and violence direction. Despite being comedic, the stage fights are executed with spot-on precision. Perfectly aligned sound effects complete the fight choreography.

Although there are only four actors in The 39 Steps, the wonderful Drury Lane production has a fifth character – the set. Angela Weber Miller’s set is both beautiful and functional. It incorporates interactive display screens, rotating elements, hidden compartments, and hydraulics. Factor in lighting design by Lee Fiskness, sound design by Ray Nardelli, and projection design by Anthony Churchill and you achieve that elusive fifth character in full.

Additional praise goes to costume designer Rachel Boylan, hair and wig designer Brittany Crinson, properties designer Cassy Schillo, dialect consultant Sammi Grant, assistant director and associate artistic director Mathew D. Carney, production stage manager Juli Hrovat-Walker, assistant stage manager Larry Banker, and managing director Wendy Stark Prey. They all fall under the authority of producers Kyle DeSantis, Drew DeSantis, Jason Van Lente, Tom Van Lente, and Abigail DeSantis.

Drury Lane is a beautiful theater that is a consistent contender and multi-time winner in the Joseph Jefferson Awards. The 39 Steps starring Gavin Lee and directed by Johanna McKenzie Miller adds another great show to Drury Lane Theatre’s resume of successes.

AMAZING COMEDIC EXPERIENCE

The 39 Steps is scheduled through August 13, with matinees on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and evening performances Thursdays through Sundays. There are senior citizen discounts on Wednesday and Thursday matinees. Group discounts are available. Dining and show packages are available too.

Drury Lane Theatre is located at 100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace. There is ample free parking. The seats are comfortable, and the staff is professional and endearing. With Gavin Lee, Zuhdi Boueri, Tom Detrinis, and Caitlin Gallogly leading the way, you are in for an amazing comedic experience.

For ticket information visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com or call the box office at (630) 530-0111.

Photos by Brett Beiner.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area

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