Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in the 1940s, the plot follows Charles Condomine (Tom Koelbel), an author who invites local medium Madame Arcati (Joy Bingham Strimple) to his home in the English countryside to hold a séance, hoping it will give him some "jargon and tricks of the trade" for his next novel, which deals with the occult. Condomine is convinced Arcati is a fake, but little does he know how wrong he is and how that evening will drive his current wife Ruth to hysterics when Arcati's presence makes Condomine's first wife Elvira, who died seven years before, materialize from the afterlife, though she is only visible to Charles. When Elvira refuses to leave, because she doesn't know how to, hilarity ensues.
While the play is talky and the single setting of the Condomine living room doesn't provide much variety in the scenes, there is much to love in Coward's witty wordplay (when Arcati tells Condomine during the séance that someone is trying to reach him from the beyond, he tells her "tell them to leave a message.") There is also a lot of humor in the well-constructed setup, including Elvira only being visible to Charles, which makes Ruth suspicious that he's going mad since it seems he's constantly talking to himself. Once Ruth realizes the validity of Elvira's presence, Coward ups the ante of comical shenanigans by pitting the two wives against each other in a battle over their husband.
Director Janis Webb has the right touch to ensure her cast create characters that are realistic yet also infused with humor. She also does well in staging the action on the small Don Bluth stage to provide some sense of variety to the production. Webb gets help from the elegant yet simple set design by Don Bluth and Cheryl Schaar, period props provided by Terri Parker, and the lighting, which is appropriately eerie at times, designed by Bluth and Judy Starr. Also, Corinne Hawkins' costumes beautifully evoke the British upper class, especially the sleek, stylish gowns for the women and the colorful mismatched getups for Arcati, which are comically rich.
The cast is more than up to the challenge of the play, breathing life into their roles while also effortlessly navigating their way through the witty but wordy script. Tom Koelbel does quite well as Charles, who at first is confused and flustered when Elvira appears but then is amused at the situation. Both he and Cheryl Schaar as Ruth perfectly project the stylish, upper-class characters and they deliver Coward's dry verbal humor with ease. In a typical "show must go on" story, Schaar assumed the role of Ruth a week before opening, after the original actress had to drop out, yet you'd hardly know it from her excellent performance of the steely, matter-of-fact wife who finds herself agitated when faced with her husband's dead ex-wife.
With a spectral glow and shimmering, ghostly skin, Rachel Weiss is striking and a whole lot of fun as the comical but devilish Elvira. As the eccentric Madame Arcati, Joy Bingham Strimple is a hoot. Her hilarious body language and zany gestures bring non-stop hilarity to the outlandish spiritual medium, generating a lot of laughs. Strimple is a scene-stealer in the part, and that's a compliment. She also brings plenty of sincerity, which adds a nice sense of realism to this wacky woman. In smaller parts, Jack White and Priscilla Bertling are winning as the Bradmans, friends of Charles and Ruth who are overly excited to be invited to the séance, and Stephanie Cartwright is bright and fun as Edith, the clumsy new maid who has to be constantly told to stop rushing and racing around the house.
Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit during World War II, and the combination of bright comedy and humorous situations in the piece were his effort to try to bring a lighter view to the heavier issues in the world at that time. Don Bluth Front Row Theatre's production proves to be a well-paced, well-cast take on this classic, supernatural, romantic comedy which makes for a nice alternative to the heavy issues we all face in the world today.
Blithe Spirit, through May 4, 2019, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8670 E. Shea Boulevard, Suite 103, Scottsdale AZ. For more information on this production or to order tickets, go to www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com or call 480-314-0841.
Directed by Janis Webb