Watching the early Hitchcock film of The 39 Steps (absolutely no need to do so before seeing this version, but for the curious it's available for viewing on line), the first thing one notices is the style: the stylish shots, the editing, the lighting, still striking even from the distant vantage-point of the 21st century. The plot, on the other hand, has by now been imitated and recycled so often as to become a genre of its own - that of the wrongly accused innocent chasing after the truth, being chased in turn by both the good guys and the bad guys, and never quite knowing which are which.
The creators of the stage version now playing at the Cort Theatre (adaptor Patrick Barlow, "based on an orginal concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon" and director Maria Aitken) have chosen wisely in their adaptation's focus. They know we're going to be way ahead of the plot, as fun as it may be, so they celebrate the fun, and they do so with style. But rather than imitating the Hitchcockian cinematic innovations, the operative style here is unabashedly theatrical.
The first image in the movie is of Music Hall marquee letters crawling across the screen. So why not choose a style that owes as much to the British Music Hall as it does to Hitchcock? It's shameless fun, of which the writers are well aware (cf. first scene curtain line). No pretense is made of reality; the actors are in on the joke(s), and this in itself contributes to many of them. Homage is even made to a theatrical budget, four actors playing the cast of - well, not exactly thousands. And this of course is much of the fun. (For those who don't like spoilers, I apologize, though the cast list in the program is honest enough. Nevertheless, overheard conversation at intermission: Wife answering husband: "No, it couldn't be only four!") One might feel sorry for poor Charles Edwards, the British actor who must limit himself to playing the central character, if he weren't obviously having such a grand time doing only that. Jennifer Ferrin, perhaps best known for her work on the TV soap "As the World Turns", shows off her theatrical chops as the dark mystery woman (with even darker and more mysterious accent) and the necessary Hitchcockian blonde, and even one of the other women (but not all). Everybody else is played by Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders - Burton with sharp, angular features, Saunders with the round sweet face - the perfect tag team of music hall comedy, with seemingly endless variations of impenetrable accents.
Director Maria Aitken, a well-known British actress with a long career in the "high" comedy of her native theater, has given her cast the benefit of that background (though this comedy may be a bit lower), her work seamlessly meshed with the choreographic staging of Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes, Kevin Adams' lighting, sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh and sound by Mic Pool, all pooling (forgive me) into one clear theatrical style. Credit must also be given to dialect coach Stephen Gabis . [I confess I missed the first mention of "the 39 steps" because I was so enjoying the ridiculous sounds in which it was cased that I forgot that a few of the words might also be significant.]
There may be some who find the jokes grow dim at times (repetition is part of comedy for some, redundant and of diminishing returns for others), but, as the main character tells us in the opening scene, frivolous silliness has its place, especially in the theater.