BWW Review: Noel Coward's BLITHE SPIRIT at Stageworks Is To Die For
"Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/Bird thou never wert/That from Heaven, or near it,/Pourest thy full heart/In profuse strains of unpremeditated art..." --from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, "To a Skylark," the source of Noel Coward's most famous title
BLITHE SPIRIT remains Noel Coward's most accessible work. Now playing at Stageworks until June 17th, it's been an audience favorite since its initial run in 1941, where it set records on the West End for longest-running play (a record that would be broken a decade and a half later with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which incidentally is scheduled for Stageworks' 2018-2019 season). There's a reason for its appeal; it has something for everyone--ghosts, séances, haughty characters, much hilarity, and Coward's saucy dialogue and unmistakable five-star wit. Even those of us who prefer Coward's richer works--Hay Fever, Present Laughing and Private Lives--can't deny the joys of BLITHE SPIRIT. It's a mainstream show, maybe too mainstream for Stageworks, but it's an entertaining romp that goes down as nice as a three-olive martini.
BLITHE SPIRIT centers on Charles Condomine, a second rate novelist who is doing research and brings in a quirky medium to a dinner party, Madame Arcati, only to have the ghost of his late wife, Elvira, inadvertently brought back from the dead after a seance. There are a lot miscommunications, misunderstandings, missteps, spooky shenanigans, spiraling picture frames, moving flower vases, fun plot twists, and brilliant barbs to keep the audience entertained.
The Stageworks production is quite traditional and gets so many things right with Coward's beloved work, but it is far from perfect. There are serious pacing problems that cannot go unnoticed; combining the first two acts (out of three) made for an extremely long first act, clocking in at an interminable hour and forty minutes. (The whole show runs just ten minutes shy of three hours, which includes an intermission; that is extraordinarily long for any comedy.) But the cast is simply wonderful.
Scott Swenson, a local star even though it's been fourteen years since he's last been on stage, shines as Charles. Watching him, I thought it's a crime we haven't seen more of him on our area stages; maybe that will change in the future (if we're lucky), but he sure understands how to deliver a Coward zinger just right.
The brilliant Betty-Jane Parks is delightful as Ruth, Charles' current wife, and she gets to showcase every emotion on earth, from smirking to squealing, from frivolity to mouth-opening horror. Her Ruth looks as though she was born with a martini glass in her hands. Mary F. Jordan and Greg Thompson are fitfully funny as the Condomine's friends, the Bradmans. And Colleen Cherry is outrageously hilarious in the small role of the servant, Edith. Her eyes seem to constantly bulge out of their sockets as if her head got caught in an invisible vise.
The lovely Lauren Buglioli is absolutely stunning as Elvira. She looks like a 1930's movie star, not far removed from blonde bombshell Jean Harlow. She has that old-style glamour and beauty, and she is riveting, hilariously so, whenever she's onstage, even when she doesn't speak. It took forever for her to make her first entrance, but when she arrived, it was like an electrical explosion and the show burst to life.
I have seen Ms. Buglioli onstage since her turn as Sally Bowles in Mad Theatre's Cabaret two years ago, heralding the arrival of a major talent to our area. Since then, she has graced local stages in everything from Gnit to The Producers, from The Great Gatsby to Disaster: The Musical. And she has never disappointed. BLITHE SPIRIT is her final local bow before she relocates to Atlanta next week and hopefully continues to grace the stages there. Our loss is their theatre community's major gain.
Best of all in the cast is Rosemary Orlando as Madame Arcati. This is intended as a wacky part, full of life as she raises the dead, like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, only better. She is the most spirited cast member, diving head first into her character's enthusiastic insanity with eyes ablaze. She'll thrust her arms about to the tune of "Always," fall into a trance at a moment's notice, and hit the ground hard as she can, passed out. Her orgasmic reactions from a ghost simply blowing in her ears is not to be missed.
Director Staci Sabarsky has guided her actors splendidly, and her sound design works well, but the aforementioned pace was definitely off. A scene between Charles and his wife became so long, it felt like I was watching Mourning Becomes Electra. Amanda Bearss' set is nothing short of incredible, cluttered with choice props, looking not unlike an antique store. Matthew Ray's lighting design suits the show well, while Frank Chavez's costumes are out of this world, some of the best costuming I've seen all year.
Go to BLITHE SPIRIT ready for a good time, great characters inhabited by wonderful actors, and an enjoyable, if not old-fashioned look at the hereafter. And don't forget those delightful Coward one-liners that are more pertinent now than almost eighty years ago when he first wrote them: "It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit."
Even though it's not my Coward play of choice, Stageworks' production of BLITHE SPIRIT is simply to die for.