BOTTOM LINE: A solid production of a classic Noël Coward play, and a great choice if you’re trying to please several different people
I must admit, I’ve never seen a production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and I haven’t read it in quite some time. It may be that this production pales against others (I’ve heard some complain, for example, that they dislike how this production turns a three act play into a two act one
–it “ruins the rhythm”, they say). So if you are a Coward connoisseur, I can’t promise you will love this production. Especially since for some Coward fans, this is one of his lesser works. But I think everyone else will enjoy this tremendously. There are a lot of great things about this Blithe Spirit, and while it isn’t perfect, I’d say that its strengths mainly lie in its appeal to a broad audience (it is on Broadway, after all), without pandering or dumbing down the play.
The play is not modernized, or set in a space ship, or anything “revolutionary”– it is a pretty traditional version of Coward’s British drawing-room comedy, in which Charles Condomime (Rupert Everett) is being haunted by his first wife Elvira (Christine Ebersole) after a séance held by the medium Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury). Of course, Condomime’s current wife Ruth (Jayne Atkinson) is none too happy about this.
All in all, the cast is terrific, but for me, Angela Lansbury was a standout; whenever she was on stage, I was riveted, and found myself focusing mostly on her. Much celebration was made when she returned to Broadway a few seasons back in Deuce but unfortunately, most people didn’t like the play (although I did). For those who love Lansbury but were disappointed in Deuce, or missed that show altogether, go see Blithe Spirit; Madame Arcati is a great role for this legendary actress. To be sure, it seemed as if Lansbury went off on her lines a few times (she IS 83 years old), but she played it off very well. My guess is that most in the audience didn’t even notice.
Also terrific is Christine Ebersole–I had no idea carrying a vase of flowers could be so hilarious. Ebersole is perfectly ethereal, and knows how to work her costume to keep the audience laughing. As an added bonus, she sings the Noël Coward songs that are played during the scene transitions. Jayne Atkinson is also wonderful. She is an incredible actress, and does the dry British humor thing quite well. Rupert Everett is enjoyable, and a perfect fit for a fussy British husband. He is quite handsome, which makes him seem markedly younger than either of his wives. I didn’t mind this, but it certainly puts a slight twist on the roles. Finally, I MUST also mention Susan Louise O’Connor, who plays the maid Edith. From the very beginning, she had me in stitches. I didn’t realize until the intermission that I had seen O’Connor on stage once before, in a much smaller theatre. She was hilarious then too so it is exciting to see this talented and very funny actress making her Broadway debut.
The set is quite grand, and almost beautiful. There is a line in the play about how Ruth’s tastes are somewhat “artsy-craftsy”, and you can see this in the selection of the sofa (its dowdiness seems somewhat out of place but I’m guessing this was intentional). But the set nevertheless got an applause when the curtain went up. The lighting deftly changes based on the different times of day (morning, late night). And the costumes are also well done, especially Madame Ducati’s eccentric outfits and Ebersole’s “spirited” gown. However, I must also add that I really had trouble with the sound design, which made everyone sound like they had their microphones set at different volumes. Atkinson didn’t seem to be miced at all, and Deborah Rush (who plays Mrs. Bradman, a friend of the Condomimes) was extremely loud. This may have been part of the reason why I didn’t like Rush in this play at all–she was the one cast member who didn’t seem to belong on that stage.
I had a wonderful time at Blithe Spirit, and I think this is a great choice for many different audiences. As my friend and I were leaving the theatre, we heard a teenage boy exclaim on his cell phone that he thought the show was “hilarious." And I could tell the older women around us loved the show. My friend (who did NOT like Deuce) loved it as well- he predicts it will be very popular, even with those who don’t see all that much theatre. It’s so great to walk out of a show with a sincere smile on your face, and that is how I left this show.
(Blithe Spirit plays at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St. Opening Night is Sunday March 15th. The general performance schedule is Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm with 2 pm matinees on Wednesday and Saturday and 3 pm matinee on Sunday. Running time is approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets are $36.50-$116.50, slightly cheaper for Wednesday matinees. Right now, 40% off discounts are available (check broadwaybox.com). There are also student rush tickets available at the box office for $26.50. For more show info visit blitheonbroadway.com.)