Jim Dale, Broadway's original Barnum, assumes the role of another outrageous storyteller in the North American premiere of Ken Hill's The Invisible Man, opening Dec. 4 (after previews Dec. 1-3) at the Cleveland Play House.
In Hill's illusion-filled adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells story (playing through Jan. 9), Dale plays Thomas Marvel, a tramp enlisted as an accomplice to the Invisible Man.
The theatrical, conceptual setting of the production, directed by London's Frank Dunlop, is a 1904 English music hall (analogous to American vaudeville). A troupe has hired Marvel to recount the tale of a chemist poisoned by his own experiments (and rendered invisible). The science fiction music-hall melodrama is played under the title, "The Terrible Tale of the Awful Events That Cropped Up in the Village of Iping."
Narrator Marvel also plays himself in the main story. In true music hall style, Dale's Marvel appears between scenes to perform nimble specialty material, which was Tony Award-winner Dale's strong suit in Broadway's Me and My Girl and Barnum.
"It's right up his alley," Cleveland Play House artistic director Peter Hackett told Playbill On-Line Nov. 30. A "music hall" company -- John Hines, Vicki Stuart, Charles Antalosky, Judith Hawking, Michael Hayward-Jones, Tina Jones, Steve Ramshur, Ian Stuart, John Leonard Thompson -- assumes roles in the yarn. J. Paul Boehmer plays the tormented, maddened Griffin, a.k.a the Invisible Man.
Illusions are by Jim Steinmeyer, a magic designer who has worked with David Copperfield, Doug Henning, Penn and Teller and on illusions for Broadway's Beauty and the Beast
Hackett said he was approached by the New York producer Alan Schuster, who owns American rights to the script, and a co-production between the nonprofit Play House and the commercial Schuster developed.
"He wanted to try it out of town," Hackett said, adding that sales are strong, partly because it's in the "holiday" slot.
Previously, the Play House earned a solid reputation launching a national tour of Having Our Say.
What attracted Hackett, beyond the freewheelingly theatrical script (which has music, magic, jokes and horror), was the linking of Dale, illusionist Steinmeyer and director Dunlop. Hackett had known the director's work for years, from Broadway's Sherlock Holmes and Scapino to Dunlop's artistic directorship of the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
"What always excites me about a project is not just the script, but always the people who are going to be involved," said Hackett.
Dale and Dunlop had previously worked together in productions of The Burglar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter's Tale and Scapino. Both were nominated for Tony Awards in 1975 for Scapino.
Hackett said without Schuster's financial co-producership, the Play House would not be able to tackle such a technically demanding, special effects driven show. The production is staged at the 612-seat Bolton Theatre, one of four spaces in the Play House complex.
Hackett said Schuster is considering a national tour of the show or may be looking for a Broadway house. It was previously announced as a possibility for Off-Broadway's Union Square Theatre in February 1999.
Hill's Invisible Man played London in 1992. Hill might be best known for his tongue-in-cheek London version of The Phantom of the Opera, which used opera excerpts to tell the Gaston Leroux story. That staging inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to go off and write his own version.
Jumping on the phenomenal success which of the ALW Phantom, a touring version of the Ken Hill show played markets around the country in the early 1990s, confusing some theatregoers who didn't know which version they were getting.
Actor Boehmer (in the title role) made his Broadway debut in Sir Peter Hall's staging of An Ideal Husband and has appeared in regional theatres around the country.
Also on the 1998-99 Cleveland Play House season:
Through Dec. 6 Twelve Angry Men(507-seat Drury Theatre)
Jan. 12-Feb. 7, 1999 The Smell of the Kill (Drury)
Jan. 17-Feb. 7, 1999 "Next Stage Festival" of play readings (120 seat Studio One)
Feb. 9-March 14 Picasso at the Lapin Agile (Bolton)
March 2-April 4 Love, Janis (Drury)
April 6-May 9 The Old Settler (Bolton)
May 4-June 5 The Imaginary Invalid (Drury)
The Cleveland Play House is at 8500 Euclid Ave. in Cleveland. Invisible Man tickets run $25-$38. For information, call (216) 795-7000.
-- By Kenneth Jones