CENTERVILLE — Over the past year and a half, I have had the pleasure of reviewing several community productions that have frankly taken my breath away. The talent in Utah is astounding, and it is a treat to see talented cast and crew members come together—typically with little to no pay—and put on a great show. Centerpoint Legacy Theatre’s Blithe Spirit did not quite reach this standard. Technically, the show was brilliant; but sadly some of the performance elements made the entire production fall flat.
Blithe Spirit is a British comedy written by Noel Coward in 1941. It is set around that time and it is said that Coward wrote the play in an effort to raise spirits (pun intended) during World War II. The entire play takes place in the living room of Charles and Ruth Condomine. Charles is a novelist and plans to write a mystery novel involving a séance, so as “research” he invites a fortune teller to conduct a séance at his home. A hilarious twist of ghostly chaos takes over the Condomine household as a result. The plot, though often centered around the topic of ghosts and death, is lighthearted and there are nice comedic moments in the script.
This was my first time seeing a show at Centerpoint’s Leishman Hall. The Leishman is a black-box theater, and as such it is a small, intimate space—quite apart from Centerpoint’s main stage used for musicals and larger productions. None of the actors in Blithe Spirit had microphones, but the stage accommodated sound well, so that the actors’ voices were easy to hear. The lighting (designed by Jay M. Clark) of the theater was simple, and fit the play well. The one “ta-da!” moment of lighting involved black lights during the séance to create a more “spooky” or supernatural feel. I was happy to see that the set had been prepped for the black lights, providing haunting surprises revealed only in that lighting.
The set—the Condomine’s living room—is period appropriate, well spaced, and is just an overall well designed piece, thanks to set designer (and director) Jana Dearden. The details in the room (e.g., artwork, books, artifacts) help make the space a believable British living room. Also, costume designer Sandy Hunsaker did a particularly noteworthy job at pairing costumes with personalities in this play, and I enjoyed the contrast between Elvira’s flowing, flirtatious gown and Edith’s very British, matriarchal suits and skirts. Madame Arcati’s colorful, bright, and textured apparel was also perfectly fitting with the fortune teller herself.
Todd Wente as Charles had a superb accent, wonderful comedic timing, and overall an entrancing stage presence. He is on stage during the majority of the show and was consistent and believable as the haunted husband. Missy Riffle (playing Madame Arcati) was delightful to watch. She seemed to be one of those actors that I looked forward to seeing again in the play. (Luckily, she does indeed appear a few times). Riffle was superb as she played the part of the wacky, outgoing, somewhat crazy fortune teller, and the performer constantly stole the spotlight whenever she was onstage without upstaging her fellow performers or being distracting. Rebecca Hess as Mrs. Bradman, though in a minor role, brought a nice spark through her character and a great energy to the stage. Hess made Mrs. Bradman into a character I wanted to know—a friend filled with kindness and wit whose eyes sparkled when she talked. Lastly, Kati Paul’s Elvira had a “Ginger” from Gilligan’s Island quality to her—a soft sultriness reminiscent of old Hollywood glamour and style.
Though these actors each gave praiseworthy performances, with the exception of Wente and Hess, consistency was an issue. Various actors seemed distracted at parts as if recalling lines (it was opening night) or simply losing interest in the scene around them. Gaps between lines were sometimes long and thus off-putting, making awkward moments out of times that could have been entertaining. And the majority of the cast could have done with greater enunciation to help their British accents be more consistent and understandable.
The show started excruciatingly slow with a drawn-out scene between Charles (Wente) and his wife, Ruth (played by Brighton Sloan). The scene was necessary, as it provided needed exposition of the couple’s marriage as a whole, and the script seemed to be written well. But though moments in the script suggested tension, the exchange wasn’t timed quickly enough or performed intensely enough to be called a true argument. Wente seemed to be trying to increase his emotional intensity, but it seemed like Sloan’s Ruth was just not all there for the ride. By the time Madame Arcati (Riffle) finally entered the play, I was struggling with caring at all or paying any attention to what was going on.
Intermission was somewhat of a relief, and though I was curious what was going to happen in the second act—Noel Coward’s script is well-written after all—I wasn’t too thrilled for another act of on-again, off-again performances. Happily, I was surprised to return to act two and find the show altered for the better. I don’t know what happened. Maybe opening night jitters were in effect and actors had a chance to take a needed break. But the show went from shoulder-shrug “meh” status to downright entertaining. Admittedly, the conundrums in the second act are hilarious, but the cast seemed to perform with greater energy and interest.
One of my main problems with the first act rested with character choices that may have not been wholly thought out, mainly by Sloan’s Ruth. Ruth is an uptight, British matriarch, but I regret that Sloan mistook severity for boredom and the old British “even keel” for disinterest and distraction. In the second act, Ruth finally seemed to gain some intensity, energy, and focus. I just hope for future performances that Sloan can fully engage in her performance from the beginning of the play, rather than only after the climax escalates. Like Charles, Ruth is in a great majority of the show—so she really needs to be able to performed consistently well.
Centerpoint’s Blithe Spirit ended on a high note, with a lot of fun and laughter. But unfortunately the journey to get there wasn’t so smooth. Pacing was slow, accents were iffy, and the show suffered from a lack of overall focus. Here’s hoping this rocky start ends up running steady for the cast and crew of the show, so audiences can enjoy this performance from the get-go.