L-R_ Joanna Strapp, J. Todd Adams, Ava Burton, Susan Denaker _ Gil Berry - photo by Aaron Rumley
By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

Mozart began composing music at the age of six.  Oscar Hammerstein II, reportedly agonized over two lines of lyrics, for ten days and sometimes longer while his partner, Richard Rodgers, patiently waited for the great lyricist/librettist to send him more words so he could breathe life into the music of “Oklahoma”.

For fourteen years they worked separately.  Rodgers in New York and Connecticut. Hammerstein preferring to work from his farm in Pennsylvania. Genius comes in all shapes, genders colors and forms. Broadway theatres and the movies thrived on the results of their collaboration, no matter the distance between the creative team.

Noel Coward, was a prolific creature of the arts with a huge canon, as well. He was a gifted writer, playwright, actor, director, composer, singer, songwriter, and producer who wrote over 35 plays, 16 musical revues a number of operettas, and radio shows.  Poverty, in one’s childhood, has driven many to succeed despite life’s many obstacles.

Coward also hungered for the lifestyle of the rich and famous and he always believed that it would happen to him. He coined the phrase ‘star quality’ as a requisite measurement for success in the theatre and the Arts and he was usually right; whether appraising his own skills or those of others. It’s a little mind-blowing when one learns that Mr. Coward, in 1941, wrote “Blithe Spirit” in just six days!  But I digress.

North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, CA, launches its 37th season with “Blithe Spirit”, a, light ‘comedy of manners’ play that made Noel Coward a worldwide celebrity. NCRT’s affable, theatre-savvy Artistic Director David Ellenstein, wisely tapped Southern California director/actor Rosina Reynolds to once again helm a production from the pen of Coward.  I still have wonderful memories from her 2014 production of Coward’s sophisticated comedy “Fallen Angels”.

Once again Ms. Reynolds lends her considerable directing skills; gifting North Coast Rep audiences with a flawless production.  But she doesn’t do it all by herself.  Theatre is a collaborative art form with many moving parts, and Ms. Reynolds made all the right casting choices right from the get-go. Casting is 80 percent of the director’s job, and when it’s done properly, the results can be sublime.

“Blithe Spirit”, is a light comedy that deals with ghosts and centers around English socialite/novelist Charles Condomine (J.Todd Adams) and his second wife Ruth (Joanna Strapp).  As a ploy to gather material for his next book, Charles invites local eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Susan Denaker) to conduct a séance for his dinner guest friends Dr. Bradman (Gil Berry) and Mrs. Bradman (Ava Burton).  The scheme, however, backfires when his deceased first wife Elvira (Teagen Rose) is summoned from the ‘other side’, during the séance conducted by Madame Arcati who sweeps into the room on a cold breeze felt by all, but is not seen by all.  Only Charles can see and converse with Elvira.

The deft performances from director Reynold’s seasoned cast of pros elevates the already top-tier production elements. The cast is always in their on-stage moments. Steady eye contact along with terrific timing and pacing make this production such a joy to watch while waiting for the next comedy shoe to drop from this flawless ensemble cast.  Once again, the creative and inventive directorial touches of Ms. Reynolds win the day.

A great deal of the heavy comedy lifting falls to J. Todd Adams and Joanna Strapp as Charles and Ruth   Condomine prototypes of the quintessential upper-class English couple and the epitome of what passes for Coward’s typical witty, elegant, English, upper class married couple.

Their on-stage chemistry is downright palpable and a thing of beauty to watch. Ms. Strapp’s riveting comedy performance coupled with an impeccable English accent, manner, and delivery make it hard to take one’s eyes off her when she’s on-stage because we’re always waiting to see what Ruth will do or say next. If the play was a novel, we would call her performance a page-turner.

Mr. Adams is a co-equal with Ms. Strapp when it comes to speech, action, and frustration.  Their performances complement one another; validating what professional actors can do with a sharp, well written, witty, comedy script.

Another scene-stealing performance comes from Susan Denaker, as the flamboyant, eccentric, medium and clairvoyant Madame Arcati.  Ms. Denaker totally immerses herself into the soul of her quirky character delivering a richly nuanced and highly delightful and entertaining performance.

In 2009 I had the good fortune of seeing then 84-year-old, legendary Angela Lansbury perform the role of Madame Arcati on Broadway and she brought the house down. I had the good fortune pleasure again at NCRT’s opening night production of “Blithe Spirit”.   Ms. Lansbury may have performed as Madame Arcati in New York, but I met the definitive Madame Arcati last week in the personage of on-stage actor Susan Denaker, in Solana Beach, CA.  It’s a superb comedy turn not be missed.

Strong support also comes from Teagen Rose as the seductive, foxy and coquettish Elvira, Gil Berry as Dr.Bradman, Ava Burton as Mrs. Bradman, and Michelle Marie Trester as Edith, the Maid, in a little comedy gem of a performance.

The technical credits at NCRT are always first rate and this production is no exception.  Director Reynolds leads the creative team of Set Designer and resident design wizard, Marty Burnett and the Lighting Design by the redoubtable Matt Novotny together make for a formidable artistic team.  The costumes designed by Elisa Benzoni are spot-on for the period as well as for functionality.  Hair and Wig Designs are by Peter Herman, and Sound Design is by Aaron Rumley who also stage manages and shoots the publicity photos.  Prop Designs by Holley Gillard completes the creative team.

“Blithe Spirit” is a splendid production that performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, and runs through September 30, 2018.

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