One of the many delights of director Michael Blakemore's revival of Noel Coward's giddily funny 1941 froth, Blithe Spirit, is that this 2009 production looks like it could have been seen in the play's premiere year. No doubt contemporary Broadway theatre can provide more spectacular ways for an actress playing a ghost to enter a room than to just have her walk through the French windows. And certainly if an invisible spirit chooses to destroy her husband's drawing room, modern technology can whip up a few tricks more gasp-inducing than simply having a picture frame fall and a bookshelf topple over. But when you have one of the English language's great comedies played by a company that excels in the verbal dexterity of the playwright's wit, there's no need for such distractions.
Coward claims to have written Blithe Spirit in only five days - writing from beginning to end without ever going back and cutting only two lines before the play's West End premiere - and it would be just plain rude to doubt his word. The one-set comedy takes place in the home of novelist Charles Condomine (designed with simple elegance by Peter J. Davison) and his second wife, Ruth. Researching the occult for his newest book, Charles has invited a rather dotty medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance in their home; expecting no more than a chance to pick up the proper jargon and catch her committing what he assumes to be the tricks of the trade. What nobody expects is for the séance to bring the spirit of Charles' first wife, Elvira, back to her former home.
After the disappointing reception for Deuce, the 2007 Terrence McNally play which was Angela Lansbury's first Broadway appearance in 24 years, it's good to see the radiant stage charmer working her magic in a vehicle more worthy of her talents. Though Madame Arcati has the least amount of stage time of the play's four leading roles, Ms. Lansbury takes steady control of every moment she's on with an adorable daffiness that that spins out of her character's serious devotion to her profession. When her voice isn't dancing with eccentric musicality her feet do the job, dancing her way into trances with absurd and wonderful arm flutters and kicks that should be the envy of any Broadway choreographer.
But this is by no means a one-star affair. As the novelist Charles, Rupert Everett nearly makes a full-length comedy out of how impossibly handsome and impeccably groomed he looks in his dinner tux. He coolly underplays his funniest comments with hilarious results until Elvira's presence causes the steady exterior to occasionally quiver. As Ruth, Jayne Atkinson makes high comedic art out of playing straight for the eccentricities that surround her and is deliciously droll in presenting the character's no-nonsense sensibility. So strong is her performance that Christine Ebersole, playing what is normally considered to be the showier role, is often overshadowed as she plays a demure Elvira who shows sparks of child-like playfulness. She's charming in the part, but Atkinson's reactions to her as Ruth are just so much more interesting and detailed. Ebersole's ghostly appearance is that of classic Hollywood glamour, looking just lovely Martin Pakledinaz's billowing diaphanous gown topped off by Paul Huntley's shoulder length blonde wig, and she sounds just divine in recorded selection from the Coward songbook played between scenes.
Simon Jones and Deborah Rush provide steady support as the Condomine's amused upper-crust neighbors and Susan Louise O'Connor is simply a riot as their dim and too-eager-to-please servant, Edith. Her bit of business involving a chair and a crowded silver tray deservedly brings down the house.
What Blakemore does here is simply allow an excellent cast who understands the material play it for its rich comic worth, adding appropriate physical embellishments. What a splendid evening!
Photos by Robert J. Saferstein: Top: Deborah Rush, Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury, Jayne Atkinson and Simon Jones; Bottom: Christine Ebersole
You have to admire the archeological skills of Mel Miller and his cohorts at Musicals Tonight! the Obie-winning company whose eleven seasons of staged concerts have regularly included long-forgotten Broadway shows with books and scores that even the most passionate musical theatre historian might assume have been lost forever. What other New York company is going to satisfy the geekiest of our showtune desires with mountings like Chee-Chee (the 1928 Rodgers and Hart musical about the son of a eunuch whose girlfriend doesn't want him to enter the family profession) and Watch Your Step (the 1915 Irving Berlin show with that scandalous new ragtime music)?
But sometimes luck has to enter the picture. And in their quest to present the first ever revival of Early To Bed, the only book musical with a complete score by Fats Waller, that luck came in the form of a senior Broadway song and dance man named Harold "Stumpy" Cromer. Miller's search for missing sections of the libretto led him Stumpy, who was making his second Broadway appearance in that 1943 musical after debuting in DuBarry Was A Lady. Though somewhere in his tenth decade, Cromer's sharp memory helped fill the book gaps, secure the song placement and provide unpublished lyrics by the show's bookwriter/lyricist George Marion, Jr.
Now, Early To Bed was not some short-lived Broadway flop that just fell into obscurity. It racked up 380 performances in a time when that was a pretty good deal. But three months before its Broadway opening a little Rodgers and Hammerstein entry named Oklahoma! came into town and popularized the well-crafted musical play, pushing silly concoctions that squeeze catchy songs into a loosely structured plot out of the spotlight.
And Early To Bed is certainly a silly concoction; though I write that with great affection. Taking place on the Island of Martinique as athletes are gathering for the Pan American Goodwill Games, the plot is centered on the ladies of The Angry Pigeon Brothel. (The location had to be changed to a casino when the show had its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston.) It seems the famous bullfighter, El Magnifico (Vincent D'Elia), has come to town determined to convince the games to include bullfighting on their schedule. (Stumpy Cromer played El Magnifico's driver in the original.) But when the matador's son gets hit by a car, he's taken to the nearest bed, which is of course, in the brothel. He wakes from unconsciousness to find he has company under the covers, the pretty young dancer who was driving the car and was also left unconscious. (Nicholas Davila and Jennifer Evans play the young innocents) In one of those coincidences that silly concoctions thrive on, the house's madam, Rowena (Rita Rehn), is an old flame of El Magnifico and because her torch is still burning she tells him she's running a girls seminary. Meanwhile, the U.S. track and field team has begun courting the lovely ladies, thinking they're simply underdressed students.
As was typical for such ventures, Marion's book is built on punchlines which are pretty hit or miss. In one scene a young "student" says of one of the athletes, "That's my boyfriend. He's in The Decameron." (The other jokes don't require knowledge of medieval Italian erotic literature.)
Those familiar with the revue Ain't Misbehaven' will surely recognize a couple of the score's better tunes. "When Nylons Bloom Again" is sung with sass and style by Broadway vet Allyson Tucker, who is joined by Gina Milo, Ali Ewoldt, Lauren Ruff, Christine Walker and Oakley Boycott for the swing show-stopper, "The Ladies Who Sing With A Band." The most recognizable number of the night, "The Joint Is Jumpin'" is added to the score as a rousing 11 O'clocker featuring 2 male ensemble members (and if someone can send me their names I'll gladly edit them in) partaking in some wild acrobatics. The song is vocally led by Frank Viveros, who plays a character modeled on Waller's familiar personality. Wearing a bowler hat and speaking in a melodic voice full of classy Harlem style, Viveros is a snazzy charmer; especially when he sings of the unique uptown educational system with "At Hi-De-Ho High In Harlem. The catchy Spanish-rhythmed "Me And My Old World Charm" is given the appropriately hammy zing by D'Elia.
I won't say that Marion's lyrics always fit comfortably into Waller's music ("Like a cobra / You'll need no bra.") but he comes up with the occasional nugget of wit. In the title song the team's crusty coach (Roger Rifkin) reminds his players of the importance of getting enough sleep with, "Each time Noel Coward / Slips into something flowered / Then hits the hay / Out comes a play!"
Director/choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills does his usual job of staging these concerts with a brisk pace and clever touches, allowing the talented cast to sell their material with spirited exuberance.
Oh, and I also enjoyed the performance of Robert Anthony Jones as an anarchist artist who paints protest murals on building walls, even though I have no idea what his character has to do with anything else in the show.