ALHAMBRA THEATRE & DINING REVIEW
DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM [email protected]
Jacksonville’s Alhambra Theatre and Dining has a special treat on tap through June 5, 2016. On stage at 12000 Beach Boulevard is “Blithe Spirit,” which opened on May 4, and is one of the most unique and interesting comedies ever written. The play was written by Noël Coward (1899 – 1973), who was truly Mr. Theatre, as he was a playwright, director, actor, composer, and singer. Alhambra Director/Producer Tod Booth has assembled a dynamite cast, with outstanding performances that are authentic and thrilling.
This play has an interesting history. Germany was bombing London in September of 1940, and Mr. Coward wanted to write a comedy which would help British theatre goers forget, however briefly, about the devastating experiences of World War II, that included frequent bombing raids by the Germans which destroyed or damaged over one million British homes during the course of hostilities.
The playwright penned the script during a six-day period while the initial bombs of the London Blitz were still dropping on the city. The play opened shortly afterward and ran for a remarkable 1,997 performances, then moved to Broadway for 657 performances. A London revival in 2014, with Angela Lansbury (who was 89 years old) in the leading role as Madame Arcati, received rave reviews.
The play is set in Kent, England in the 1930s. The story revolves around Charles, a suave wealthy novelist, Ruth, his attractive second wife, and Elvira, his first wife who died several years ago. Charles is currently planning to write a novel about the occult, and to research the spirit realm has invited Madame Arcati, a well-known local medium, to his home to conduct a séance. Charles and Ruth have invited two friends, Dr. Bradman (Drew Taylor) and his wife Violet (Patti Eyler), to join them for the evening.
Charles and his guests had expected to expose Madame Arcati as a fraud, but the session does not go as planned; the flamboyant medium accidentally calls up the spirit of Charles’s dead wife. Although Charles (and the audience members) can see and hear her, her presence is not apparent to others.
While Ruth is initially convinced that Charles is going crazy, he is able to convince her that Elvira is present, even though unseen, and Ruth then becomes filled with jealousy. When the manifestation of Elvira begins planning to bring about the death of Charles so he can join her in the afterlife, the on-stage action becomes heated. But no spoilers here.
Laura Hodos, whom we last saw in the Alhambra’s “Music Man” with the Jacksonville Symphony, is excellent as Ruth, who experiences frequent changes in her emotional state as she is caught up in Elvira’s wiles. Lexi Langs is the maid Edith, who garners a lot of laughs as she does everything in double time and gallops about while working.David Arrow in his Alhambra debut as Charles is unfailingly convincing as a husband who is faced with committing astral bigamy. Jessica Booth is the sensational sensual Elvira, a lovely but somewhat petulant ghost. Ms. Booth, who is currently based in New York, is a Jacksonville native who grew up acting on the Alhambra stage and loves to perform here; we love seeing her appear in challenging roles.
The role that brought the most laughs was that of the self-assured bicycle-riding Madame Arcati played by the Alhambra’s favorite female comedian, Lisa Valdini, whom we first saw on this stage in the 1980s in “I Ought to be in Pictures.” As the medium, Valdini swoons, gushes, and flutters in the most amusing animated ways as she implores the spirits to respond to her attempts to banish Elvira back to the beyond.
Director Tod Booth has worked his own magic and the show is pleasantly fast-paced. The British accents are excellent. Set Designers Dave Dionne and Ian Black have captured the ambiance of an elegant 1930s British home, and The Costume Crew’s period attire is right on the mark.
“Blithe Spirit” is the only comedy this season at the Alhambra, and is truly a classic. Call 904-641-1212 or visit alhambrajax.com for reservations and additional information.
Of note, the Alhambra’s “After Dark 2016 Music Series,”, featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis will be up and swinging June 8 – 12, followed by Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which opens on June 15 and will be onstage through June 31.