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“Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson: Spiritualism, Cynicism, Comedy, and a Star

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of "Blithe Spirit" at the Ahmanson

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of “Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson

When a classic play is revived, there are several reasons to go see it, if it’s done well. The first is to rediscover an old friend, particularly a beloved one. The second is, in the case of a major professional production, often to see a famous person or persons play a part he or she has wanted to do a long time. If the results of either desire are met, the show can be considered a satisfying success. Of course, sometimes the results can stun – become more powerful than either of the expectations above would prepare one for – as in Cecily Tyson’s recent “The Trip to Bountiful” – but one should not expect that. More often, as in the production of “Blithe Spirit” which has just arrived at the Ahmanson, the result proves satisfying in large part because of the juxtaposition of an experienced actor or actress having fun, and an old friend of a play: well done, even if not stunning.

The Noel Coward classic appears here in a touring production fashioned on the 2009 revival which won Angela Lansbury her fifth Tony Award. Well produced, the result is funny and almost appealingly grating, just as it should be. The story itself has much to say about relationship – a theme to which Coward returned with absolute regularity.

Charles Condomine, a skeptical novelist living in a British village, invites the local medium to conduct a seance at the house he shares with his second wife, Ruth, as part of research into a new book. In the process of the seance, and to his shock, his first wife’s ghost appears, but only to him. The misconstructions and chaos begin almost immediately, witnessed by the seance’s other participants – a practical doctor and his wife. The anxieties which erupt are only exacerbated by an uptight village girl-housemaid. You know this is not going to end well.

Director Michael Blakemore allows tight timing and, thanks to Simon Higlett’s set, just enough special effects to keep the story moving and increasingly funny. The performers make the characters, though as comic as they need to be, also as real as the situation and script will allow. This is important in a Coward play.

Charles Edwards exudes confidence and charm as the novelist. Charlotte Parry gives his wife that genteel but not glamorous look required of the part, and the straight-spined society edge. Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley provide such a classic “country doctor and wife” they looked as if they stepped out of a late-30s British film.

Jemima Rooper, as the ghostly first wife, Elvira, has an absolutely delightful time – in many cases, it is her energy which emphasizes the comedy and sets the pace for the entire piece. Likewise, Susan Louise O’Connor, as the dim, literal, and countrified maid provides a certain amount of understated commentary on stuffiness, just through her presence and the occasional wry look.

And then, of course, there is Angela Lansbury, the actress whose 70-year acting career (she was in “Gaslight” at age 18, believe it or not) has brought her to this theater, this part and this celebration. She’s having a ball, which is both a good thing and perhaps a bit dodgy for the play itself on occasion. As Madame Arcati, the once-celebrated London medium residing in Condomine’s village, she is supposed to be a bit unique and over the top. Her abandon, and that of the now unrestricted Elvira, provide balance to the ordered structure of everyone else’s lives. And Lansbury does “odd” well. The trick is not to do it too repetitively or for too long at a stretch, and sometimes she dances pretty near the limit.

Special kudos to the meticulous work of Higlett’s, Bill Butler’s and Martin Pakledinaz’s costume designs, which place the piece neatly into a specific period. Most particularly the costuming of the ghost (later, ghosts) proves clever without being overly dramatic. The production is brilliantly set, with quoted notes from the original script between acts, terrific Coward music recorded in period, and an overarching sense of time, place and attitude.

And that is why to go: go for the technical accuracy, the clean and crisp production, and the well performed, tight, humorous, charming little play. It says nothing new, but it says what it has always said in what is mostly describable as the best possible way. And go for Lansbury, for even when she oversteps a bit, she does so with a kind of panache worth taking in. Certainly, at 89, she can be granted a little license.

What: “Blithe Spirit” When: Through January 18, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135. N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $140 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

I’ll Be Loving You… Always? – A charming “Blithe Spirit” in Whittier

The cast of “Blithe Spirit” holds a seance with surprising results at WTC

Of all the plays Noel Coward wrote in a long and storied career, “Blithe Spirit” may be the most fun. As always, a toss-up of society norms, it offers up a clever mix of mysticism, human foibles, misunderstandings and outrage, with a little class consciousness thrown in for good measure. Never quite slapstick, never too deep to be laughable, it offers up truly fun parts for actors to move into, and guaranteed laughs.

As proof take in the new, and quite polished production at Whittier Community Theatre. There this company shows off all its best stuff, from a delightfully appropriate set to the comic timing so necessary in a piece like this one.

The story begins innocently enough. Writer Charles Condomine lives with his second wife, Ruth, in a lovely country house. As part of research for his new book, he invites a local woman with a long history as a medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a seance at his house. She proves to be quite a character, entertaining both the Condomines and their equally skeptical friends the Bradmans as she warms up for the deed itself. Still nobody, not even the new and rather awkward maid, could be prepared for what Madame Arcati conjures up.

Director Roxanne Barker has gathered together a highly polished cast, and has a tight understanding of comic timing. As a result, this thing hums along from laugh to laugh with a deceptive effortlessness.

Norman Dostal proves impressive as the rather quickly nonplussed Charles. Combined with the equally sharp renditions of Shannon Fuller as Ruth and Andrea Stradling as the seance’s surprise, the central comedy hums like a top. It’s a delight to watch. Lauri Boehlert finds the balance in Madame Arcati, making her a bit outrageous but serious about her craft, and avoiding the temptation toward buffoonery which often weakens the part. It is Arcati’s very earnestness which cements the humor – a much more satisfying outcome.

Richard De Vicariis and Patty Rangel, as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, also play it straight, becoming charming witnesses to the increasingly unpredictable Condomine household. Julie Kirkman has a ball with the inept country girl trying to quell her impulse to dash everywhere – the Condomine’s new maid.

Kudos to set designer Suzanne Frederickson for making really terrific use of the Whittier Community Center stage, and creating a convincing country house. Nods also to Karen Jacobson and Shon LeBlanc for period- and character-appropriate costumes.

Indeed, the only troubling thing about this production had to do with the microphones they have place to carry the voices of the actors when they are upstage. They ring hollow, and seem cranked up a bit too high, bringing artificiality to an otherwise neatly polished production.

“Blithe Spirit” is just fun, and this is a good version. Also entertaining is the music between scenes, all of it music of Noel Coward’s, and some of it even sung by him. How much more in the spirit of the thing can you get?

What: “Blithe Spirit” When: Through June 16, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students Info: (562) 696-0600 or ww.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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