Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Blithe Spirit

The first Broadway musical I ever saw was High Spirits.  It was in September 1964 at the Alvin Theatre, and it starred Tammy Grimes, Edward Woodward, and Beatrice Lillie.  Written and directed by Noel Coward, it was the musical version of his play Blithe Spirit.

I don't remember much about the musical except that Beatrice Lillie was a hoot as Madame Arcati, the ditzy medium in bunny slippers who rode a bicycle across the stage and conjured up spirits with a ouija board.  I'm told the critics were not kind to the show, but it had a respectable run (375 performances).  If it didn't tear up Broadway, though, it wasn't because of the source material.

Blithe Spirit is one of Mr. Coward's more farcical plays, but it contains the comedy of manners that he's famous for in works such as Private Lives or Present Laughter.  In this production at Stratford under the direction of Brian Bedford, the dialogue crackles along and the pace is fast enough that there are no gaps.  And the acting is finely tuned; plays like this run the risk of being over-arch and overly clever, but Mr. Bedford knows that understatement is an element of farce as well as over-the-top.

It does not hurt that there is an element of situation comedy throughout the play.  Characters speaking to ghosts to the befuddlement of the unknowing other people in the room was a staple of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, but Mr. Coward uses it to the right degree so that it doesn't become a worn-out gimmick even to an audience who has seen it before.

There is not a lot of depth to the play beyond the comedy and the situation, but when you consider that the play was written in the middle of the London Blitz, opening in July 1941, Londoners needed something light and funny.  It worked; the play was a huge hit, and when it came across the ocean to New York, it ran for years.  This production shows why.

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