Theater Review: Theatre Raleigh’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ Catapults Kids on an Adventure

The Theatre Raleigh world premiere of Around The World In 80 Days is a joyous musical mad-cap caper for all ages, performed by a tight foursome of players and backing musicians. Coming in at under an hour (a must for families with wiggly young children), book and lyric writer Claybourne Elder delivers a brisk, zany retelling of the Jules Verne classic that’s restyled just enough for the modern family audience. One need not be familiar with the original story to enjoy the production, just be aware that it necessarily sprints along, which leaves some plot points and character development a little bit thin. The trade-off to this is that younger audience members remain engaged. The original music by Rodney Bush didn’t leave an earworm but was pleasantly performed by a live band on stage that was very fun to watch. 

Director Jenny Latimer and the production team transformed the Kennedy Theatre into an inviting space for audiences to get right into the action. For a production about friendship, Latimer ingeniously created special floor seating areas right up front for children. Whether they came with friends or made some there, children in the audience were able to have a unique experience engaging with one another and the players onstage. 

The play centers on the journey of eccentric millionaire Phileas Fogg and his reluctant traveling companion Passepartout. The globe-trotting adventure plays out before our eyes through Latimer’s intimate and imaginative staging, economic use of a steamer trunk full of props, and some old-timey theatre magic. Nick McNeil’s part-smoldering/part-petulant take on Fogg delivers just enough bluster and charm to be loveable. Providing the perfect foil for McNeill, Aiden Triola’s anxious but loyal Passepartout is incredibly relatable for the children in the audience. Triola also delivers the strongest vocals of the group.

The animated Emily Tolnay as Aouda and Betsy Scarisbrick as Detective Fix round out the ensemble. Tolnay adeptly engaged the children in the audience (even the loudest and wiggliest amongst them) and showed off her skill as an improviser and comedienne by being able to respond in-the-moment and drawing children into her performance. Despite being given the flimsiest material by the playwright, Scarisbrick simply dazzled. Along with an adorable tongue-in-cheek “around the world in 80 seconds” plot recap, Scarisbrick’s earnest-lullaby/manic-lovesong to Passepartout was the high watermark of the show.

Costume Designer Ruthie Allen adeptly anchored each character with bold specificity. Memorable pieces included Phileas’ regal purple coat, Passepartout’s cropped turquoise plaid pants, and Aouda’s cartoonishly large hair bow. Stuart Rose’s props stole the show and created a Christmas morning-like sense of anticipation for what might pop out of the trunk next.

In addition to the accessible, high quality performances and production values, the experiential details, such as hands-on photo booth props, “passport” activities, and an array of concessions (read: kids can take a snack into the theater and moms can get a glass of wine), make this a worthwhile outing for families. The only thing that might make the experience even better would be, a bit more pre-visit information about the show and orienting to the Kennedy Theatre (if you don’t already know that it’s in the BACK of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, you or less patient members of your party could get frustrated) and some post-show enrichment. NOTE: Pre-show information is sent via email to ticket holders prior to the performance.

The Theatre Raleigh production of Around the World in 80 Days runs through October 27th at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit https://theatreraleigh.com/family-series/ or the RDU on Stage Performing Arts Calendar.

Read what Claybourne Elder and Jenny Latimer have to say about the production in the RDU on Stage feature about the show.

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