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Wednesday, 25 March 2009 23:41

Review: Blithe Spirit

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Christine Ebersole, Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett in Blithe SpiritChristine Ebersole, Angela Lansbury
and Rupert Everett in Blithe Spirit
Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

The most recent incarnation of Blithe Spirit that opened this past week at the Shubert Theatre is sheer joy. The Noël Coward bon-bon stars Angela Lansbury in a “leave ‘em dead in the aisles” (if you’ll pardon the expression) role as Madame Arcati, a psychic retained to conduct a séance. Ms. Lansbury’s performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. Rounding out the cast is Rupert Everett in a spot-on Broadway debut, Christine Ebersole and Jayne Atkinson. The pace of this production is exactly what one hopes for in a production of a Noël Coward work. At the helm of this production is Michael Blakemore (Copenhagen, Democracy).

Madame Arcati has been retained by Mr. & Mrs. Cardomine (Everett and Atkinson) to provide research material for his latest book. Along for the ride are Dr. & Mrs. Bradman, played effectively by Simon Jones and Deborah Rush. Dodging in and out throughout the piece is the Cardomine’s frenetically paced maid, Edith. In a Broadway debut sure to bring name recognition to a young actress, Susan Louise O’Connor turns in a delightfully goofy performance in the role of Edith. Each instruction given her by her master and mistress is taken to the nth degree of literality, even if she only seems to have short-term memory.

Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit
Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit
Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

In order to begin her séance Madame Arcati must first have some music (and no cucumber sandwiches). As the music begins to play she begins to twitch about in a form of dance probably last seen at a prom in a senior center. Her moves are Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett after a laced pie. This is worth the ticket price alone. Her physicality for a woman of her years is funny, heart-warming and downright encouraging for someone squarely in middle age. The site of Angela Lansbury draped over the back of a chair is a sight to behold.

Without specifically intending to, our eccentric medium conjures up the late wife of Charles Cardomine, Elvira. Elvira is played by Christine Ebersole in a bawdy performance as Cardomine’s morally fluid first wife. She savors this performance and has a grand time with the role. I still don’t think I will ever be able to see Ms. Ebersole in a performance again without fleetingly hearing “Little” Edie Beale from her Tony Award winning performance in Grey Gardens.

Ms. Atkinson does a terrific job in the role of Ruth Cardomine, a woman driven to near madness at the idea of her husband’s previous wife’s spirit inhabiting her house. I do, however, have to point out something I’m not going to be popular for pointing out. Though born in the same year (1959) Mr. Everett seems younger when side-by-side with Ms. Atkinson. She seems more appropriate as a slightly older aunt rather than a wife when paired with Mr. Everett.

In another disappointment, the silliness of this romp is unfortunately played against a flat set by Peter J. Davison that is only (and thankfully) saved by the lighting of the talented Tony Award winner Brian MacDevitt.

The Cast of Blithe Spirit
Deborah Rush, Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury, Jayne Atkinson and Simon Jones in Blithe Spirit
Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

One of the problems that all of the actors in this production suffer from is a mush-mouth delivery of some of the lines. The evening I saw the performance the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) was providing digital subtitles of the lines on the down-left side of the stage. As a result I found myself referring to the subtitles to see what word I had just not understood. What this pointed out was just how loosey-goosey the cast still is with the script. There are more than a few liberties being taken with Mr. Coward’s words. That said had the subtitles not been there you would never have known it from the fine performances given by this talented and engaging cast. Despite a few minor flaws, when you weigh them against seeing the legendary Angela Lansbury in a triumphant return to Broadway (not including her participation in the forgettable Deuces) and the funny and talented cast, I’d be running to the box-office.

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In other reviews:

In Ben Brantley’s review in the NY Times he raves about Angela Lansbury in one of her “juiciest roles in years.” He felt the cast “still has a way to go before it finds its fleet feet.” He ultimately liked the cast though he felt Christine Ebersole was out of her element in the role of Elvira. Read the entire review.

David Finkley, in his review for TheatreMania called Michael Blakemore’s production “pretty-near-perfect.” Read the entire review.

Linda Winer raves about Lansbury in her review in NY Newsday calling her “amazing at 83” and that she is “channeling the lighthearted shrewdness of her Jessica Fletcher and the wild comic timing of her Mrs. Lovett from "Sweeney Todd." She is not nearly as kind as regards Mr. Blakemore’s production calling him out on his “old-fashioned scene titles, hokey effects and a pretty dowdy set.” Read the entire review.

The AP’s Michael Kuchwara says the cast “delivers the goods, artfully keeping the classic Noel Coward comedy spinning merrily at the Shubert Theatre.” Read the entire review.

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 July 2010 21:55