For a musical based on the oft-revived Noël Coward comedy Blithe Spirit—and one that got eight Tony Award nominations to boot—you’d think that 1964’s High Spirits would have ended up a perennial CLO favorite. Somehow it didn’t, thereby making it ideal for one of Musical Theatre Guild’s concert staged readings of lesser known Broadway hits and misses. High Spirits’ one-performance-only production on Monday proved not only the rightness of the choice, but also that this is a show which deserves considerably more recognition than has been the case.  With absolutely stellar work by its four leads and its superb direction by the multi-talented Richard Israel, MTG’s High Sprits had its audience in high, high spirits indeed.

Blithe Spirit fans will find many of their favorite sequences intact in Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s book, and though the pair’s clever, tuneful songs are occasionally at odds with the tone of the Coward original, many of them are showstoppers, and one of them, “You’d Better Love Me,” ended up covered by (among others) Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark, Lena Horne, and Mel Torme.

The plot remains the same as Blithe Spirit’s.  Widower Charles Condomine (Damon Kirsche) is happily married to second wife Ruth (Teri Bibb) when a séance led by zany medium Madame Arcati (Carol Kline) conjures up the ghost of wife number one, the glamorous Elvira (Michelle Duffy). (FYI, that’s El-VEE-ra, not El-VY-ra.) Elvira decides to stick around, much to Charles’s delight and Ruth’s consternation, and so thoroughly enjoys being reunited with Charles that she determines that the two of them should be together forever—if you get my drift.

High Spirit’s Cowardesque songs include Ruth’s plaintive “Was She Prettier Than I?”, the nostalgic “Forever And A Day,” and the romantic “If I Gave You.” The role of Madame Arcati is a good deal beefier than in Blithe Spirit, thanks to the inclusion of several comedy numbers—“The Bicycle Song” (a love song to a bike), the bouncy “Go Into Your Trance,” and “Talking To You” (a love letter to a Ouija Board!). Then there’s Elvira’s jazzy, sassy “You’d Better Love Me,” her show-stopping Act One closer “Faster Than Sound,” and the witty “Home Sweet Heaven,” in which Elvira recounts just who is shacked up with whom in Paradise:  “The King Of Prussia, I call him Freddy, is living by mistake with Mary Baker Eddy.”

As with every Musical Theatre Guild  show, the performances by MTG members (no guest artists needed this time around) were as much a reason to attend as was the chance to see a rarely-performed musical gem.  In fact, the four leads were so perfectly cast and their performances so perfectly polished that it scarcely seemed possible that this all was put together with a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal.  Though required to hold script in hand, Bibb, Duffy, Kirsch, and Kline seemed virtually off book from start to finish.  Bibb’s elegance and her effortless soprano made her the ideal Ruth and ditto for Kirsch’s debonair Charles (if one substitutes tenor for soprano).  Duffy followed her best-ever Beggar Woman in last month’s Sweeney Todd with a glamorous star turn as Elvira, one that that allowed dazzling Michelle to show off both her acting chops and her Vegas-ready belt in a single role. Kline reinvented wacky Madame Arcati in her own unique image, proving a non-stop delight in the role. 

Providing excellent support were William Martinez and Marsha Kramer as séance guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman. Lowe Taylor had great fun and garnered laughs as ditzy maid Edith.  The threesome were joined by Kim Huber, Tracy Lore, Brandon Michael Perkins, and Jeffrey Polk, leading men and ladies giving generously of their talents in ensemble roles. The octet’s dancing to Cheryl Baxter’s lively, inventive choreography in “Go Into Your Trance,” “Faster Than Sound,” and other numbers were High Spirits highlights.  The entire company’s British accents were for the most part spot-on.

All this was put together by master director Israel, who kept the action visually interesting and the performances pitch perfect, with just enough blocking to give the feel of a staged performance. I especially liked the moving curtains effects whenever a ghost appeared or did her dirty work.

A three-piece jazz combo, led by musical director Mary Ekler at the piano, with Randy Landas on bass and Mark Converse on drums and percussion, made for a perfect fit with Martin & Gray’s songs.  Shon LeBlanc and Valentino’s Costumes deserve kudos for the performers’ elegant wardrobe, with extra snaps for Duffy’s slinky white full-length gown.

Those who didn’t catch February 22nd’s performance at the Alex have only themselves to blame for missing one of winter’s musical theater highlights.  Next up (on April 19) is Irma La Douce, the last of this season’s four 1960s gems, to be followed by 1994’s country-western-themed Das Barbecü on June 14.  Both are not to be missed—take my word!

–Steven Stanley
February 22, 2010

The Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Ave., Glendale.

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