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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The 39 Steps

With only the teensiest fraction of the "Young Frankenstein" budget, this British import -- an adaptation of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll -- manages to re-create the entire espionage film, replete with varying locales, a complex chase through Scotland, and multitudinous characters, all with a mere four actors and minimalist sets.

The spare but eminently satisfying Olivier Award-winning production has been imported from London (where it is still running) by the enterprising Roundabout Theatre Company.

In the Donat role of Richard Hannay -- a reluctant investigator inadvertently caught up in intrigue with a spy ring, after he's accused of murdering the mysterious damsel in distress to whom he's given shelter -- Charles Edwards gives a dapper characterization. The rest of the cast -- all Americans -- perform with surprising authenticity; they include Jennifer Ferris as a prototypical 1930s heroine, and a couple of other female roles. But most astonishing are Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, playing dozens of other roles, switching costumes and accents (and occasionally genders) with consummate ease.

Actress Maria Aitken directs with a sharp satirical eye that matches the work's conceit.

In the process, the original property -- originally a novel by John Buchan -- is gently spoofed, but not (as some purists have sniffed) denigrated. Playwright Patrick Barlow (working from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) pays homage to Hitchcock movies, including a cameo appearance by the master, courtesy of a cardboard cutout. The piece successfully walks the line between a ripping espionage tale and a droll satire.

Familiarity with the original book and film (it was remade in 1959 and 1978) is not mandatory. Safely recommendable to teens and up. (American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.; (212) 719-1300; www.roundabouttheatre.org)

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Little Mermaid

Quality family fare for the kids is in such short supply in any medium that it's a pleasure to be able to welcome the latest screen-to-stage Disney extravaganza on the Great White Way. "The Little Mermaid" is the latest, and one of the best of that company's amazingly successful screen-to-stage adaptations.

Despite some carping from the daily press, we found this a highly enjoyable two and a half hours. And the scores of hyperactive kids -- little girls with "princess" fixations were predominant, of course -- were transfixed once the lights went down.

Given the underwater setting of this very loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's bittersweet fairy tale (Disney has supplied a satisfyingly upbeat ending), the big surprise is how stage-worthy it turns out to be, thanks to Doug Wright's deft script.

Following "Xanadu," this is the second major musical of the season where the cast moves about largely on roller skates. The effect -- in opera director Francesca Zambello's colorful production -- often suggests aquatic navigation.

Though wisely there's been no attempt at slavishly copying their animated forebears, the cast is strong across the board: an adorable Sierra Boggess as Ariel, who delivers the big ballad "Part of Your World"; Sherie Rene Scott hilariously over-the-top as the villainous Ursula, the estranged sister of Ariel's father, King Triton; Norm Lewis as that imposing monarch; Sean Palmer as Ariel's human prince Eric; Jonathan Freeman as Grimsby, his guardian; Eddie Korbich as Scuttle the seagull; and Tituss Burgess as her Jamaican-accented crab guardian, Sebastian.

The calypso rhythms of the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman hits "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" are given fresh staging, among which the new songs with lyrics by Glenn Slater fit seamlessly.

Though things look awfully dodgy for heroine Ariel, who foolishly barters with Ursula to exchange her beautiful voice for human legs, all is set right by the end, with those basic life lessons germane to the best Disney products provided along the way. (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.; (212) 307-4747; www.DisneyOnBroadway.com)