What can I possibly say about the opening night of Blithe Spirit? I’ve been to quite a few opening nights in the past couple of years, but none recalled the glamour of the Golden Age of Broadway quite like this one. Everywhere we looked, there were stars dolled up to the nines in their tuxes and evening gowns. Then to witness the sparkling champagne revival of Noel Coward’s classic play on top of it? It doesn’t get much better than that.
The evening got started as it often does at Angus for our customary opening night toast and chatter. We soon realized that we were surrounded by first nighters as we started seeing bow ties and cummerbunds wherever we looked. The red carpet was mobbed with celebrities and curious onlookers at the Shubert Theatre. The Shubert flagship had long been resident house of the recently closed Spamalot and housing its first straight play since the 1975 revival of The Constant Wife with Ingrid Bergman. After taking in some of the scenery in and around the lobby, we trekked up to the balcony where we found ourselves dispersed among the crowds. The woman to my left was clearly a regular theatregoer who was attending her very first opening night (and I instructed her to visit the lobby at intermission so as to take in the stars).
The play is a beautiful throwback to the parlor comedies of the 1930s and 40s, with enough wit and class in the staging and design that even the usually snippy Coward couldn’t help but approve. (Snippy you say? Read his diaries and compilation of letters. They’re incredibly opinionated, bitchy and often always hilarious). Christine Ebersole, Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson and the irrepressible Angela Lansbury star in this first-rate revival of one of Coward’s most amusing and enduring comedies. Ebersole is a bit out of her element as Elvira and has to work harder than the rest, but nevertheless turns in a fun performance as the troublemaking solipcist of a dead wife. Everett could play a role like Charles in his sleep, and in his Broadway debut as the acerbic, put-upon Charles; a game straight man to the three women at the center of the play. Atkinson is comic marvel as the living wife, Ruth, who on page is a considerable wet-blanket, turning her into the more impressionable of the wives. Susan Louise O’Connor, also making her Main Stem bow, takes the small role of Edith and turns it into a physical comedy highlight (her business involving the serving tray and the chair is quite memorable). Simon Jones and Deborah Rush add some color to the listless roles of the skeptic doctor and his awkwardly verbose wife.
However, the evening belongs to Angela Lansbury as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. Lansbury has some hefty shoes to fill. The role was created in London and onscreen by Margaret Rutherford (best known for essaying Miss Marple in a series of 1960s films and an Oscar winner for a scene-stealing performance in The VIPs), Mildred Natwick in the original Broadway production as well as a 1950s television version and Geraldine Page in the 1987 revival. Bea Lillie had her final stage triumph starring as Arcati in High Spirits, the 1964 musical adaptation of the play.
When Lansbury made her first entrance she received lengthy applause from an audience grateful at seeing an icon on her latest icon, a hand completely deserved. Decked out in delightfully garish garb with a red wig knotted in double braids, Lansbury delivers a fresh performance that ranks with the best of them. Watching her command of the stage in a physical role such as this is nothing short of a marvel. She’s lean, she’s lithe and delightfully blithe (to borrow from Timothy Gray and Hugh Martin) in all facets of her performance, with enough energy to light up Times Square. Her look, her voice, her delivery, her timing (that delicious Bette Davis glare she gives Deborah Rush!) are all beyond compare. However, the highlight of her performance could very well be the bizarre interpretive dance Arcati does to Irving Berlin’s standard “Always.” It’s the stuff of theatrical legend, I look forward to repeat visits and I can’t wait to see her win a fifth Tony this June.
After the opening, we stargazed as the glamorous throng made it’s way across the street for the opening night party. Sarah asked Donna Murphy, looking like a Grecian goddess, when she was going to be back on Broadway. And when Elizabeth Ashley left Sardi’s and was getting into her car, we decided to give her a big round of applause because, well, she’s Elizabeth Ashley. She shouted to us “But I wasn’t in the play!” to which we replied “We know!” and just continued cheering. The evening reached it’s climax as our gathering in front of the Shubert lasted longer than the official party across the street, looking at our stars get into their cars and head home for the night. Before the night was over, we were reviving the revival complete with sock puppets. A night for the ages and one to remember.
Before I go… here’s an idea that I’ve been very vocal about: for the inevitable Actor’s Fund benefit performance present a performance of High Spirits in concert style staging at the Shubert. You’ve got two musical theatre divas reigning supreme in the choice leads. From the business they do onstage in the play, it’s clear that Atkinson and Everett have at least a passing sense of musicality and voice. Besides, who wouldn’t love to hear a full orchestra knock that sensational overture out of the ballpark? Or have Angela Lansbury crooning a love song to her ouija board? Or have Christine Ebersole fly around faster than sound? I’d be there. Just a thought… In the meanwhile, get your tickets to Blithe Spirit!!