Transparent Wonders

Play House renders H.G. Wells's sci-fi classic as music hall extravaganza.

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Ever since the Star of Bethlehem dazzled the original cast of wise men, Christmas has been synonymous with special effects. Following in this tradition, the Cleveland Play House has rendezvoused with some technical wizards to fashion a holiday spectacular out of H.G. Wells's evergreen The Invisible Man to make eyes gaga and mouths agape.

The Play House has used all manner of technical wizardry in its version of Wells's phantasmagoric novel on the difficulties of simultaneously being invisible, naked, and keeping one's British upper lip stiff. All this astounding gadgetry is contained in the framework of a 1904 English music-hall show.

Yet, with all its limitless imagination, charm, and snappy professionalism, cynics still smell a rat. For Play House devotees, it's like suddenly being fed Godiva chocolates after a steady diet of Hershey bars. Then you recall that you're really at a pre-New York test run; only the ushers are local. It's time to forget civic pride, take off the intellectual straitjackets, relax, and savor this cockney-inflected state-of-the-art stage magic.

In its two-and-a-half-hour traffic on the Play House stage, the voluptuously naked man of the title slowly disappears before amazed eyes; various computerized articles of clothing do a carefree waltz; a British bevy of buxom femininity is caressed and "begoosed" by invisible digits, while bobbies and toffs are shoved, pulled, and yanked by the same unseen mitts. Weapons, furniture, and chamber pots are flung across the room with no visible means of propulsion. Practically every special effect that dumbfounded 1933 film audiences in James Whale's film of the same novel has been approximated on the Play House boards.

Even with this madcap extravaganza's delightfully ramshackled music-hall numbers set at the cozy "Empire Music Hall," with its barrage of ads for tea cakes, cucumber sandwiches, and no end of other Englishy paraphernalia and its Monty Pythonesque spoofing and "carry-on" slapstick, the show still manages to be remarkably faithful to the dark heart and foreboding of Wells's novel. It tampers less with Wells than does the classic film, which introduced Claude Raines to civilized cinema audiences.

The late Ken Hill's 1991 adaptation is in the manner of the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood: a cockney toffee with a classic novel embedded in its center. It's coated and held together by the savvy charm of Jim Dale's old-time music-hall trooper. He is the British equivalent of a Sid Caesar or a Ray Bolger, an athletic clown who makes singing, dancing, and twinkling seem effortless. Dale can insinuate himself into an audience's confidence with a mere wink and a knowing leer. Give him a lame wisecrack ("Ladies or gentlemen--you know what you are!"), and he will turn it into a sparkling skyrocket.

It is Hill's clever conceit to take a minor character from the original novel (a tramp named "Thomas Marvel") and make him a paid music-hall entertainer who narrates Wells's tale. If you have seen any of a long line of British musicals, ranging from The Pirates of Penzance to Oliver! to Half a Sixpence, you'll recognize the denizens of this particular milieu: the bossy cow of a landlady, feverishly slapping the maid and pursuing the boys--here lustfully brought to life by Vicki Stuart; the puffed-up, blundering constable, as portrayed by Charles Antalosky; the tortured romantic of the Shakespearean desperation and mellifluous verbiage, with that lock of hair perpetually falling on fevered brow, embodied in comely J. Paul Boehmer as the eponymous anti-hero, who is fortunately seen only on rare occasions; the bonnie Scotch suffragette heroine, Miss Statchell, wisely added to Wells's cast of characters, vigorously acted by Judith Hawking. All manner of English prototypes are to be found here--the twittering reverend, the saucy maid, the all-around British booby--and played, respectively, by Michael Hayward-Jones, Tina Jones, and John Hine. Anyone who has read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knows there must be an evil, treacherous professor--here portrayed by the sneering Ian Stuart.

Director Frank Dunlop is the Alexander the Great of live theater. He has conquered in every province--classical, contemporary, opera, and avant-garde. Besides wielding his escutcheon as monarch of numerous theater companies and creator of the original "classic" Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he has written for the stage and frequently partnered the aforementioned Jim Dale. Here, with the help of illusionist Jim Steinmeyer and set designer James Youmans, he has made the impossible become marvelously real.

The Invisible Man is a work so musical in spirit and buoyancy that it's easy to forget there are literally only a couple of songs; it begs for an entire score to express its vitality. The only audience members you won't see turning cartwheels over this one are the invisible relatives of the man himself.

The Invisible Man. Through January 9, at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000.

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