THD Production Spotlight: "The 39 Steps"

Student-directed play promises to be ‘unlike anything’ UB has done in recent years.

A man and woman lean across a table and link their pinkies.

Glen Chitty and Caroline Jameson star in "The 39 Steps." Photo by Ken Smith.


Published February 15, 2024

Being thrust into an adventure of James Bond-ian proportions is not in the cards for most. But for Richard Hannay, an average Joe framed for murder and pitted against a menacing power, that’s simply his new normal.

The cast and crew of The 39 Steps — a Theatre and Dance Student Directed Series (SDS) production which chronicles the noir, yet over-the-top comedy that Hannay’s life becomes — are geared up for opening this weekend on Feb. 16 and 17.

At rehearsal, five mirrors rolled around the Katharine Cornell Theatre, surrounding Richard Hannay (played by Glen Chitty) as he hightailed it away from the police, who were on his trail for a murder he didn’t commit. The Scooby Doo-esque chase had Hannay — a spy by chance rather than choice — jump onto the ledge of a moving locomotive and into another train car.

“It’s a culmination of four years of technique, even during the most silly parts,” Chitty, a senior music theatre major, said about the student-run production. “This is where we prove our worth. The onus is fully on us to perform at our highest ability.”

As the mirrors parted, they revealed Pamela, played by Caroline Jameson, in comically-large glasses, being spontaneously kissed by Hannay in order to hide from the police. However, when Pamela — Hannay’s eventual love interest — realized that he was on the lam, she immediately snitched, reigniting the chase.

“That’s their version of a 'meet cute,' but under very silly circumstances,” Jameson, a sophomore musical theatre major, said. “You’re gonna be laughing non-stop. But it has a good heart, the show itself.

"It’s unlike anything that’s been performed at UB in recent years.”

Two goons restrain a nervous man while a woman watches with folded arms.

Photo by Ken Smith.

Throughout the show the comedy and drama are enhanced by a live piano score composed almost entirely by Music Director Kyle Brown, a sophomore biochemistry major.

“The music serves as a nice connective tissue between a lot of moments because it's a show that’s funny and pretty fast-paced,” Brown said. “I hope people find that the music ties everything together nicely and makes it feel complete.”

For Brown, whose fingers fly on the keys just as quickly as Hannay runs around the stage, this is his first live play since the “crowning achievement” of starring in his elementary school’s production of Shrek the Musical at age 10.  

“We ran Act I and added music, there was an electricity in the air,” Show Director / senior theatre performance major Moth Medina said of Brown’s score. “All the big moments just felt alive, like there was something beautiful being breathed into every scene, as music has a tendency to do.”

As the chase continued into the balconies of the theater, Amanda Nirenberg — stage manager and a senior musical theatre major — took notes, guided the cast in moving mirrors onto spike marks, and indicated sound cues.

For Nirenberg, a first-time stage manager who also stepped into additional roles while Medina was away, The 39 Steps was a completely new experience.

A woman lying on a chair flirts with a man who seems to have fallen on the floor.

Photo by Ken Smith.

“I was director for a week, which was terrifying. It was a big step for me,” Nirenberg said. “It was a good experience, thinking on my feet working with a cast on my own. I'm really glad I got the opportunity to do so.”

Despite the excitement of the many firsts presented, Nirenberg was happy to give the reins to Medina upon his return. A first-time director, Medina stood in the audience watching the scene unfold.

The 39 Steps is typically staged as a drama, but Medina took the show in an unconventional direction. “I chose it because it’s an uplifting story,” he said. “It could be a drama. It has been a drama. But this is a comedy, because we don't need to take it so seriously. We don't need to take life so seriously.”

One thing the cast did take seriously was concealing the meaning behind the show’s ominous and seemingly incomprehensible title: The 39 Steps.

Jameson issued a “no comment” of sorts: “I cannot confirm or deny anything."

Chitty began to answer, then humorously feigned being killed before the big reveal.

“If you don’t come to see the show then you’ll never know what The 39 Steps is. I can’t reveal it for fear of my life,” Isaac So, a sophomore theatre performance major, said.

Although the cast held some secrets close to their chests, Medina did open up about the significance of this opportunity for him and his fellow collaborators.

“[The SDS] is so necessary to the life of our department, that the students be able to push the boundaries and envelope of what students are expected to do into finding out what they can do,” Medina said. “We're given somewhere to go and try out different things, and we’re succeeding and failing and learning.”

Freelance writer Alex Novak is a senior English major, with a minor in theatre performance.