Glendale Centre Theatre proves that you don’t need a cast of dozens and a seven-figure budget to bring John Buchan’s The 39 Steps to life, despite a plot that takes hero-on-the-run Richard Hannay on an adventure from London to Edinburgh to the Scottish moors and back (during which he crosses paths with a hundred fifty characters or so). All you need are four crackerjack actors, an inventive design team, a tireless stage crew, and directorial whiz Todd Nielsen on hand to bring Buchan’s classic spy novel to vibrant, hilarious life.

Film buffs will recall The 39 Steps as the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller filmed a full quarter century before North By Northwest’s Cary Grant found himself pursued across the United States by enemy spies mistakenly believing him to be a CIA agent.

With its 1930s hero in dire straits similar to Cary’s, The 39 Steps’ now iconic sequences include a train-top chase leading to Hannay’s daredevil jump onto the Forth Bridge, a seemingly fatal shooting of our hero midway through, Hannay handcuffed to Hitchcock Blonde heroine Pamela as he searches for a villain recognizable only by the missing top joint on one of his fingers, and a very public climactic scene at the London Palladium, much like the one Hitchcock later filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Playwright Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage adaptation recreates each and every one of these classic Hitchcock film sequences live—and with a grand total of four actors playing all of the film’s more than twelve dozen roles. Talk about a feat of theatrical wizardry!

For L.A. theater lovers who may already have caught The 39 Steps with its original Tony-nominated scenic and costume designs at the Ahmanson and/or La Mirada theaters, Glendale Centre Theatre’s nifty from-the-ground-up production gives us The 39 Steps in the round, an arena staging that allows director and cast to create theatrical magic in whole new ways, recreating the film’s myriad iconic scenes with supreme imagination, pantomime expertise, and even some dancing shadow puppets thrown in for added laughs.

Popular Southland musical theater star Brent Schindele is Hannay and L.A. theater newcomer Eva Swan is (among others) the mysterious foreign brunette who talks him into taking her back to his flat following a shooting they have witnessed at a London theater.

Clearly relishing the opportunity of bringing to life a non-singing, non-dancing role, Schindele is the very picture of Hannay’s “wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and very attractive pencil moustache,” and makes for an absolutely splendid straight man to the zany mayhem around him.

The equally terrific Swan (whom you’ll be hearing a lot more about) not only plays sultry German Annabella Schmidt, she gets to double as icy blonde Pamela (the stranger on a train Hannay ends up handcuffed to as enemy spies pursue them across Scotland), and also as Margaret, the comely young wife of a country farmer.

As for Clown # 1 (SoCal favorite Louis Lotorto) and Clown # 2 (recent Carnegie Mellon-to-L.A. transplant Michael Cusimano), the multitalented duo luck out in the scene-stealing department, bringing every other character from the Hitchcock film to life, from vaudeville performer Mr. Memory to a helpful milkman to a Cockney charlady to a pair of lingerie salesmen to a police officer duo to a train porter to a paperboy to a Scottish farmer to a pair of pilots to a seemingly respectable but secretly villainous professor and his buxom wife … and that’s just in Act One.

Since L.A. theater regulars know Lotorto as the Scenie-winning character actor who has vanished into roles as varied as The Glass Menagerie’s Tom Wingfield and Wait Until Dark’s Mike Talman, it should come as no surprise that this acting chameleon proves the perfect choice to disappear inside character after character after character (in a number of instances making split-second back-and-forth transformations with nothing but a change of hat), and prove himself as masterful at comedy as he is at drama.

As for musical theater triple threat Cusimano, most recently seen as an ever-so-sexy Danny Zuko at Cabrillo Music Theatre, versatility (and not Grease) is surely the word for this tall, dark, and handsome young leading man with serious comedic chops. (I’m a particular fan of his irresistibly quirky Mr. Mystery, but that’s a mere drop in the bucket of roles Cusimano brings to zany, zippy life.)

Master director Nielsen has come up with way after way to dazzle the GCT audience with his ingenuity—along with plenty of uproarious comedy shtick and inspired sight gags. You won’t want to miss the inventive ways Nielsen has come up with to bring classic action sequences to life, as when Hannay leaps out of a train, inches his way along its outside, then leaps from carriage to carriage, a pair of policemen pursuing him with relentless determination.

And that’s just one of Nielsen’s many feats of theatrical magic, which also include Hannay being chased across the Scottish moors by a single-engine Tiger Moth, another chase across city streets with policemen appearing at every turn, and our hero and heroine (handcuffed together) being stymied in their efforts to elude their pursuers by a herd of baaing sheep. (Kudos to prop mistress Nikki Freed for those furry creatures and countless other props.)

A terrific uncredited scenic design takes us from Richard’s flat to a London music hall to an Edinburgh train to the Forth Bridge to the Scottish moors to a sheriff’s office to an assembly hall to a country inn and finally to the London Palladium, all of the above with only tables and chairs and boxes and ladders, oodles of imagination, and the best stage crew in town—stage manager Caitlin Barbieri and running crew Carl Garcia, Alex Husmann, Aleen Voskanian and Lalla Voskanian. As for Angela Wood’s costumes, they are as always era-perfect treats, a number of which the Scenie-winning designer and her Glendale Costumes have confectioned so as to get donned and doffed and re-donned again in record time.  Nathan J. Milisavljevich is sound technician.

Patrick Barlow’s hilariously imaginative adaptation of a film classic proves a textbook example of the magic that can only be achieved in live theater. That it’s being done in the round, and done so splendidly, only makes this latest Glendale Centre Theatre production all the more magical.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
July 18, 2013

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