National Tour Review: BLITHE SPIRIT (Ahmanson)

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by Jason Rohrer on December 16, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


Angela Lansbury in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

– P.B. Shelley, “To a Skylark”

If time had not shown that Noël Coward’s 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit is a funny play, one would not find out from Michael Blakemore’s touring production, which broke a hip at the Ahmanson this week. Disdaining high and low points, ignoring moments, content pettily to creep, this is theater at a geriatric velocity. Don’t blame the marquee attraction: While it is true that Angela Lansbury, at 89, displays few remaining star qualities—her diction, her movements, her timing, all were markedly limited opening night—it is Blakemore, at 86, who has put this show in a daybed and tucked the blanky under its chin.

L-R: Susan Louise O’Connor (standing), Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry and Simon Jones in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

A man (Charles Edwards) invites a neighborhood medium (Lansbury) to conduct a séance in his living room. Inadvertently, his dead first wife (Jemima Rooper) is conjured and moves into the house, greatly to the consternation of his second (Charlotte Parry). All very silly. This story has survived so long because it’s not simply a case of get-rid-of-the-ghost, or replace-my-new-wife-with-the-old; the first Mrs. Condomine was a lot more fun, but the second would never stoop to murder.

Charlotte Parry, Angela Lansbury, Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

Lansbury gives the sort of holiday-charades performance that, frankly, if she didn’t have five Tonys (one of them for this role, in 2009), would have got her replaced. And if Blakemore hadn’t directed that Broadway production, as well as the West End version that devolved into this tour, doubtless he too would have been sacked for making this material as flat, slow, and unamusing as he has done. But this is all beside the point. Without Lansbury, there is no West End, no tour. And Blakemore goes with Lansbury.

Susan Louise O’Connor, Charles Edwards and Charlotte Parry in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

Edwards is a good actor; Parry is a good actor; Rooper, though performing in a very different play from the others, is a good actor. More than two and a half hours is a very long time to watch good actors wag their eyebrows and flounce without motivation or conviction…to hear plum dialogue bounce off wall, ceiling and floor before it is answered…to admire scenery and costumes and hair and body mikes, because one’s attention is not engaged elsewhere. There are deadly Coward plays, but this shouldn’t be one of them.

Charles Edwards, Jemima Rooper, and Charlotte Parry in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

Across Music Center Plaza at the Mark Taper, another old London comedy (What the Butler Saw) is enjoying a more successful, though similarly uninspired, presentation. I find that Joe Orton’s rage transcends the Subscription Base Waltz, while Coward’s whimsy trips ungracefully without a strong lead. I laughed often at the Orton; at the Coward last Sunday, only twice. And so I am moved to consider that the old people who deserve a strong defense are not those getting paid to revive old shows but those who make up that subscription base.

Charlotte Parry and Charles Edwards in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

At big city houses and regional theaters across the land, those who can be counted on to buy tickets are routinely condescended to with just this sort of indifferently directed, she-used-to-have-a-TV-show offering, as if aged playgoers were a simplistic, undemanding herd. But surely old audiences are as discerning a crowd as exists; they’ve seen more theater over more years than young people are likely to do. They deserve better than to be treated as if they had no sense of humor or culture, or didn’t like surprises. Like everyone else, they go to the theater to feel that they’re not going to give up and die – at least not tonight. It would be nice if, when they got there, the place was less like a coffin.

Also appearing: Simon Jones, Sandra Shipley, Susan Louise O’Connor. Simon Higlett, designer; Mark Jonathan, lighting designer; Martin Pakledinaz, Miss Lansbury’s costume designer; Ben and Max Ringham, sound designers.

Jemima Rooper in the North American tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”photos by Joan Marcus

Blithe Spirit
presented by Center Theatre Group
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on January 18, 2015
for tickets, call 213.628.2772
or visit

tour continues through March 9, 2015
for dates and cities,

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mark Hein December 20, 2014 at 11:31 am

Instead of a screwball, CTG tossed a slow curve — and you hit it out of the park!


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