Monday, March 23, 2009

A Flawed Equation



...should equal fizz, froth, and hilarity. And, in small doses, the current revival of Blithe Spirit offers just that -- all too fitfully. Noel Coward's Design for Living-meets-Topper 1941 comedy shows its age around the edges, and while the cast is up to the challenge of making it fresh and funny, Michael Blakemore's direction is curiously stodgy and plodding, the staging claustrophobic and uninspired.

Angela Lansbury, of course, is one of the Great Ladies of the Theatah, and her reviews have been nothing short of glorious. It's true that her role as the dotty Madame Arcati is written as a scene-stealing, showy star turn, but Lansbury more than earns the adulation. She imbues the addled (yet 100% sincere) occultist with a charming, tattered dignity and warmth; and, at 83, she's still able to contort her remarkably lithe and lean body into comic dancer's poses which recall burlesque Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Of course, one expects nothing less than perfection from Miss Lansbury; the real surprise was Rupert Everett's well-nuanced performance, delivered with his trademark panache, but with much more subtlety than his recent film appearances would suggest. It was also a performance filled with a remarkable amount of give-and-take with his fellow players, and no sign of the undisciplined mugging or winking irony Mr. Everett has sometimes been guilty of.

As his ghostly wife, Christine Ebersole is, sadly, the weakest link among the cast members (the delightfully dry Jayne Atkinson is marvelous as the solidly upper-class second wife). We want to love Ms. Ebersole, we really do; she's a glamorous, madcap blonde with an oversized diva personality, a lovely singing voice, and a camp sensibility aimed directly at the hearts and wallets of Confirmed Bachelors With Interests in Musical Theater. But she is one beloved performer who consistently leaves us cold; and while she's certainly not awful in Blithe Spirit, she never really convinces us that she's a sprightly spirit. Ms. Ebersole is decidedly earthbound, for lack of a better phrase, and her accent too often wobbles from the British drawing room to a Bronx barroom. Despite her brittle, 1930's-esque demeanor, Ebersole never quite captures the gleefully pixie-ish/devil-ish charm of Elvira the way Kay Hammond did in the film, or the way we imagine Tammy Grimes did in the 1964 musical version, High Spirits. Our biggest problem with Christine Ebersole is that she seems to think that she's Constance Bennett, but she really is more Joan Blondell.

A trio of Elvira's: Kay Hammond (top), Tammy Grimes (center), Christine Ebersole (bottom)

All in all, it was entertaining enough, but ultimately unsatisfying. Still, it was worth it all just to see Angela Lansbury doing her stuff, live, on stage. It's one of our great regrets that we didn't have the chance to see her perform in any of her great musical roles: Mame, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy. When she's on stage in Blithe Spirit, it suddenly feels lighter, brighter, gayer. If only she could be in every scene.


  1. Angela was seraphic; right up there with Mildred Natwick (the OBC who also did Mme Arcati on TV and radio), Margaret Rutherford (OLC and movie) or Bea Lillie (the musical), but oh, for an Elvira on a level with the musical's Tammy Grimes or (best of all in my book) the January 14, 1956, TV broadcast Elvira, Lauren Bacall, who played opposite Coward's own Charles and Claudette Colbert's Ruth! If only someone could get that out on DVD.

  2. Oh, Eschetic, you read my mind! Ever sincde I heard about that TV broadcast with Bacall, Coward and Colbert (I'm practically weeping just reciting those hallowed names), I've been dying to see it.

    Of course, there's a not-so-nice backstage story about that production which I feel comepelled to share: Miss Colbert was tripping up her lines during a rehearsal - which, for 1950's TV, must have been a hurried affair from the start. Apologetically, after muffing the scene repeatedly, she told Sir Noel, "I don't know what's the matter! I knew these lines backwards last night!" To which Sir Noel replied, "Yes, dear, and that's exactly how you're playing them now."


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