May 20, 2009

A Toast to the Sheer Joy of "Blithe Spirit"

Some theater lovers are happy to see just about anything (me). Others are choosier, saving their theatergoing for what promises to be something special (my husband K). So it should say something right away when I tell you that it was K’s idea for us to see the new revival of Blithe Spirit now playing at the Shubert Theatre. “I think it will be fun,” he said.

Fun is precisely what Noël Coward intended when he wrote this frothy drawing room comedy over five days in 1941. War-weary Brits were delighted by it and the show ran for 1,997 performances there and then for 657 performances when it opened on Broadway a few months later with a largely American cast.

Coward’s story of the writer Charles Condomine whose dead wife Elvira is conjured up during a séance by an eccentric medium named Madame Arcati was turned into a 1945 movie with Rex Harrison as Charles and Margaret Rutherford recreating her London stage role as Madame Arcati. It was also the basis for the 1964 musical High Spirits with Edward Woodward as Charles, Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati and Tammy Grimes as Elvira.

K knew none of this. He simply wanted to see the current production because Angela Lansbury is playing the role of Madame Arcati. And he isn’t the only one who thinks that seeing Lansbury is something special. Rupert Everett makes a suitably suave Charles and both Jayne Atkinson and Christine Ebersole do bravura work as his wives—the live one Ruth and the ghostly one Elvira. Susan Louise O’Connor gives a deliciously ditzy performance as the family’s not-quite-competent maid and deservedly won one of the Theater World awards given for the season's best Broadway debuts. But every critic has singled out Lansbury’s performance.

So far, Lansbury has won every theatrical award this season that she’s been eligible for— Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play from both the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle—and a few that were created just to honor her –a Unique Contribution to the Theatre Award from the Drama League and a Special Citation for her contribution to the American theater from the New York Drama Critics Circle (click here to watch her gracious acceptance speech). And, of course, she’s also a frontrunner for the Tonys that will be handed out on June 7.

You may think that the theatrical community is merely paying homage to her long and illustrious career in the theater—Lansbury, now 83, made her Broadway debut in 1957 in the Georges Feydeau farce Hotel Paradiso, created the iconic roles of Mame and Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett and has won four previous Tony awards. Or you might say it’s all because she’s so beloved for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the old TV mystery series “Murder, She Wrote.” But you’d be wrong. Lansbury’s getting all this attention because she’s playing the hell out of the role (click here to read an interview with her about her career and her take on Madame Arcati).

Lansbury's performance is a master class in what stage comedy should be. From the madcap dance she improvises as she moves into Madame Arcati’s trances to the mere raising of an eyebrow as she ponders a question posed by one of the other characters, she know how to hold the stage without hogging it, to get the laugh without milking it. She is serious about her fun-making but has a good time making it. She is, like the martinis her character guzzles, thoroughly intoxicating. And, as K predicted, she makes Blithe Spirit one of those special, you’ll-be-sorry-if-you-miss-it events. Watching her in this show is sheer theatrical bliss.


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Nick said...

As one who was an actor in my youth and deeply loves the theater, but can no longer afford to go (I used to pay $15 a ticket!), I just love your reviews. It makes me feel like I was there... and that is something! Thank you!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Brian, if you—or anyone else—would like to have an offline conversation, you can email me at
Albest, jan

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks again, Nick. I feel lucky that I'm able to see these shows and lucky, too, to be able to share them with fellow theater lovers like you. Albest, jan

Kevin Daly said...

"Blithe Spirit" is one of those fizzy champagne evenings at the theatre: it leaves you feeling light-headed, giddy and a trifle moonstruck.

Lansbury is a joy to behold. I can't wait to go back!

Sarah B. Roberts said...