WWII London had just undergone the eight months of sustained bombing by Hitler’s Luftwaffe (and seen tens of thousands of its citizens killed, and even more injured) when Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit opened in June of 1941, offering shell-shocked Londoners a welcome escape from the horrors of the night skies and keeping them laughing throughout the war—for a grand total of 1997 performances.

Though times in Los Angeles are hardly as tough these days, Coward’s “improbable farce in three acts” retains its power to make audiences forget their troubles and just get happy—nearly seventy years after its London debut. New Yorkers were recently treated to a Broadway revival, which won Angela Lansbury a Tony for her performance as medium Madame Arcati, and though the cast of A Noise Within’s 2010 revival may lack the name recognition factor of Broadway’s above-the-title stars, it’s hard to imagine a better staged or performed production of this Coward classic.

Blithe Spirit is Noël Coward’s uproarious entry in the ghost comedy genre, one that movie and TV audiences are well acquainted with. (Think 1937’s Topper, its TV sitcom adaptation, and countless imitators.) When only one character can see the ghost(s) in question and the people around him/her suddenly find our hero(ine) talking to the air and see objects floating around the room, hilarity is sure to ensue.

Coward’s comedy gem centers on Charles Condomine (Scott Lowell) and wife Ruth (Jill Van Velzer), whose five years of marital bliss have been tarnished by a single factor: Ruth can’t seem to shake the thought that Charles hasn’t been able to forget his first wife Elvira, dead these seven years. Since novelist Charles is doing research on a book he is planning about a homicidal spiritualist, who better to aid him in his research than local clairvoyant Madame Arcati (Jane Macfie). A séance led by the eccentric psychic conjures up more than expected when Elvira (Abby Craden) suddenly reappears in the Condomines’ living room, quite a bit paler than she was in life but just as feisty as ever. And because no ghost story would be nearly as fun if everyone could see the ghost, it is only Charles who can see and talk to his deceased wife.

Naturally, Ruth is none too happy about this uninvited visitor to her home, especially when Charles starts carrying on conversations with the walls. When Charles reluctantly informs Ruth that Elvira is back, the only way he can prove it to her is by asking Elvira to carry a bowl of flowers to the mantelpiece and back again. Since we’ve watched this scene countless times in the movies and on TV, it’s easy for us to imagine the flowers floating in midair (as they appear to Ruth), and it is just as funny even seeing Elvira moving the bowl—because we can imagine it through Ruth’s eyes.

Under Dámaso Rodriguez’s expert direction, Blithe Spirit’s cast of seven get everything right. Used to helming edgier fare at Furious Theatre Company where he is Artistic Director, Rodriguez proves here, as he did directing Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at the Pasadena Playhouse, that he is equally adept with the classics. With performances as pitch-perfect as those delivered by his stellar cast, it’s clear that a gifted director had a hand in fine-tuning their work. (Kudos also to dialect coach Nike Doukas for the entire cast’s pitch-perfectly posh English accents.)

Lowell, whose presence in the production is sure to bring out Queer As Folk fans, proved in 2008’s Orson’s Shadow that he was a master at “a clipped British accent and rapier sharp wit.” (I’m quoting myself here.) Equally outstanding as Charles Condomine, Lowell delivers lines as deliciously dry as the pitcher of martinis he prepares for assembled guests with the perhaps the slightest hint of vermouth in martini history.

Van Velzer has dazzled audiences with her musical theater performances as Laurey Williams in Oklahoma! and Julie Jordan in Carousel, both of which won her Scenies. In Blithe Spirit, she proves herself every bit as impressive in a straight play, disappearing so completely into Ruth’s crisp, aristocratic Englishness that it seems at times as if Helen Mirren has borrowed Van Velzer’s stunning face and tall, aristocratic frame for this superb performance.

It’s been two and a half years (i.e. far too long) since A Noise Within Resident Artist Craden has graced an ANW production. Thus, it’s a real treat to have the company’s resident femme fatale back in full seductive mode as Elvira. Glamorous as all get-out, and clearly having the time of her life with this great, sexy role, Craden gets laugh after laugh playing ghostly pranks on Ruth as she connives to get Charles back as her own.

Eccentric spiritualist Madame Arcati is one of the greatest parts ever written for a character comedienne (Margaret Rutherford originated the role in London, Mildred Natwick on Broadway, and Beatrice Lillie in the play’s musicalization as High Spirits). A Noise Within newcomer Macfie get the role here, sinks her teeth deep inside, and makes it entirely her own, aided immensely by E.B. Brooks’ costumes, an outlandish blend of the masculine, the “Oriental,” and the downright kooky—words which also describe Macfie’s marvelous performance.

Gibby Brand and Jacque Lynn Colton vanish into Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, the older couple who complete the table at the séance that brings Elvira back into Charles’s life. Colton in particular impresses with a voice and accent so distinct from her own that she seems possessed (or at least inspired) by the ghost of some great classic British character actress of years gone by. Alison Elliott completes the cast terrifically as awkward, overeager servant Edith, whose inevitable gallop to answer the door earns Elliott laughs aplenty.

Kurt Boetcher’s elegant living room set (meticulously appointed by properties designer Renee Thompson Cash) and Brooks’ spot-on mid-1930s fashions create precisely the right period look, beautifully lit by lighting designer James P. Taylor. Monica Lisa Sabedra’s wig, hair, and makeup design do the same. Sound design and original compositions by Doug Newell and Zipline Sound contribute greatly in establishing a spooky yet tongue-in-cheek mood for the proceedings. Monique Fisher is assistant director, Csilla Balogh and Julius Bronola costume assistants, Dale Alan Cooke stage manager, Lisa Marie Monette assistant stage manager, Adam Lillibridge technical director, Ronnie J. Clark master electrician, and Michael Field scenic artist.

Stiff-upper-lip Brits who faced death on a daily basis doubtless felt comforted by Blithe Spirit’s promise of an afterlife, and a fun one at that. Though contemporary Angelinos have it a good deal easier than their WWII London counterparts, they will likely find themselves laughing with equal gusto, particularly with a Blithe Spirit revival as all around smashing as the one now gracing the stage at A Noise Within.

A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale.
–Steven Stanley
November 7, 2010
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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