IF YOU GO
What: Noël Coward comedy about a dead wife who comes back to haunt her husband and his new wife
When: 8 p.m. through Saturday, April 23. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on April 10, 16, 17, 20 & 23.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: Tickets start at $35, $15 for students
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
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NAPLES — An earlier version of this review omitted the name of the production's scenic and lighting designer. Dennis W. Moyes designed the set for the Gulfshore Playhouse production of "Blithe Spirit."
Gulfshore Playhouse serves up witty wordplay, gorgeous period fashions and a few pesky poltergeists during Noël Coward comedy "Blithe Spirit." Kristen Coury ends her season on a high note as the production captures perfectly the droll rhythms of the snobby British upper class.
"Blithe Spirit" tells the story of socialite and novelist Charles Condomine (Cody Nickell). While researching a new book, he invites local spiritualist Madame Arcati (Elizabeth Dimon) over for a séance. The thoroughly charlatan Arcati manages to conjure up the spirit of Condomine's first wife Elvira (Caroline Hewitt), much to the dismay of the current wife (Beth Hylton). Catfights ensue once Elvira sets her mind to have Charles join her in the afterlife.
The play debuted on London's West End in 1941; Coward felt audiences wanted an escapist comedy as a distraction from World War II. "Blithe Spirit" ran for 1,997 performances and spawned numerous adaptations, including 1964 musical "High Spirits."
Coury hurries her cast of professionals along with ease. Coward's elegant, literate sentences fall beautifully. "Blithe Spirit" resembles something out of a juicy soap opera ("Passions" anyone?) and the spirited pacing, lush costuming and arch mannerisms help that illusion. Coury understands when to hold for a moment to allow audiences to catch up to the verbiage or to throw in a little touch (watch the vermouth bottle) to enhance the show.
"Blithe Spirit" faced disaster when the actress originally slated to play Madame Arcati was forced to leave the show. East Coast actress Elizabeth Dimon, who played Mrs. Meekly in January's "Unnecessary Farce," came on board only six days before opening night.
Despite the late arrival, Dimon makes the role her own. If Coury hadn't announced the re-casting before Friday's show, the audience would never have known. While Madame Arcati can be a dopey old bat, the character absolutely believes in her spiritual prowess. Dimon captures that self-delusion (and the accompanying gabble about mediums, ectoplasm and whatnot) with enviable ease.
Cody Nickell shines brightest as Charles Condomine. Whether bantering with second wife Ruth, pleading with the spirit of first wife Elvira or screaming at the pair of them, he raps out the tongue-twisting dialogue with the savoir-faire of a caddish British socialite. Merely watching him make a dry martini brings laughs.
Hylton brings fire and sass (and some peacock-worthy finery) as snappy second wife Ruth. Hewitt masters the art of the cutting comment as ethereal Elvira. Clad in a flowing, ice-blue gown (it evokes "ghost" without being obviously so), she swans about, blowing in ears, throwing flowers and generally being a nuisance. Gillian Wiggin amuses in a small part as rather clueless neighbor Mrs. Bradman.
A stunning English drawing room set from Dennis W. Moyes, in shades of lavender, cream and pale green, makes the Norris Center stage look enormous. Five original paintings created for the show by artist Jackie Morelisse that decorate the set are also available to the public via silent auction.
Jennifer Murray's divine costumes range from a shimmering amethyst evening gown for Hylton to a forest green smoking jacket for Nickell and a chic pale russet creation for Wiggin. An enormous feathered hat Dimon wears as part of the Madame Arcati costume deserves its own credit line.
The word-heavy show won't be for everyone. "Blithe Spirit" isn't a bumbling farce with laughs every thirty seconds - but this is Noël Coward as Noël Coward was meant to be performed - funny, dry, arch and bravely unafraid of its own intelligence. Look for the histrionics of the final few scenes, Dimon's antics as Madame Arcati and Morgan Rosse as over-excited maid Edith.