Live theatre is back! Broadway has been touting the return to the stage of many wonderful shows, and local theatre is no different. Greater Boston Stage Company (GBSC) in Stoneham, MA kicks off its 2021-2022 mainstage season with the raucous The 39 Steps.
This two-time Tony (R) and Drama Desk Award-winning treat is packed with laughs, a slew of characters, a plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and some good old-fashioned romance. Adapted by Patrick Barlow based on the thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and the novel by John Buchan, The 39 Steps is directed by associate artistic director Ilyse Robbins. The play tells the tale of Richard Hannay, a bored London gentleman whose life suddenly becomes infinitely more interesting when a woman is murdered in his apartment. Who is she and what are the mysterious 39 Steps? The action continues as Hannay flees London for Scotland to solve these and other mysteries.
“I am honored and thrilled (get it?) to direct this first mainstage show on our road to recovery,” said Robbins. “What better way to come back to the theater than to enjoy a good old-fashioned comedy/whodunit/romance where four actors play over 100 roles. I have the great good fortune to work with four of the funniest actors in town. They give new meaning to the words, ‘We wear many hats.’ I hope you will find yourself laughing as much as I do.”
The Weekly recently spoke with one of the four actors, Grace Experience, about the show, her role(s) and what it was like to return to the stage. Our readers may remember the last time we had the opportunity to see the versatile and brilliant Experience perform was in the play Midwives at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse based on the book of the same name by her father, NY Times best-selling author Chris Bohjalian. In fact, that was the last time we attended a live performance before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all theatres.
When asked how it felt to be back on stage in front of a live audience, Experience said that she and the entire cast were overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people attending. Half an hour before the opening night performance of The 39 Steps, Experience said that Robbins showed the cast a photo of the lobby. “It was full with all these masked people, and the cast collectively just got weepy,” recalled Experience. She said since the show’s opening on September 23, the audiences have been wonderful, responsive and excited to be in attendance.
A small cast and 150 characters make for a very physically demanding show with its set of challenges. “I’m nervous for the first two minutes when I go on, and then there’s no time because we are moving so quickly through every character,” explained Experience. “The greatest challenge is moving so fast from one person to the other. There are some remarkable quick changes that everyone is doing.”
Experience says this role is different from others that she has embodied since she plays three very distinct female characters who she describes as “over the top.” “I’m potentially having more fun than I’ve ever had on stage in my life,” enthused Experience. “Our wonderful director Ilyse has given me so much liberty to be as wild as I would like in the show which is not a chance I get very often, and it’s been really, really fun,” she laughed.
The Broadway premiere of The 39 Steps in 2008 opened to enthusiastic reviews. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called the production, “Absurdly enjoyable! This gleefully theatrical riff on Hitchcock’s film is fast and frothy, performed by a cast of four that seems like a cast of thousands.” Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News said, “Hitchcock probably never imagined his thriller had the makings of a hilarious comedy, but this show is a dizzy delight and an ingenious spoof…”
From all accounts, this production promises to be equally delightful. When asked what makes GBSC’s version unique, Experience shared that Robbins has done a great deal of musical theater and choreography, so “she has added so much music and style to the play. It is very precise with a lovely musicality that is very unique to this production.”
The 39 Steps has “something for everyone: murder mystery, comedy, love story,” shared Experience, “It’s a really joyful piece and a perfect way to come back to the theater,” she concluded, and we already have our tickets reserved.
The cast of The 39 Steps also includes Russell Garrett, Paul Melendy and KP Powell. The design team is comprised of scenic designer Shelley Barish, lighting designer Daisy Long, costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt, sound designer Andrew Duncan Will and props master Emme Shaw. Shauwna Grillo is the production stage manager.
Performances run until October 10.
About Greater Boston Stage Company:
We bring vibrant professional theatre and dramatic education beyond the boundaries of Boston, featuring world and regional premieres alongside fresh interpretations of familiar work. Within this setting, we uniquely foster the artists of tomorrow by providing ongoing performance and employment opportunities to our company of current and former students. Now in its 22nd season of live theatre in Stoneham, MA, Greater Boston Stage Company produces six Mainstage shows, presents a series of Special Events, and runs year-round classes, lessons, and fully staged productions through The Young Company for students in grades 1–12.