By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

The Westchester Playhouse, home of the Kentwood Players is celebrating 70 continuous years of presenting quality theatrical entertainment to audiences of LA’s Westside.  It’s an enviable track record in the face of today’s mortality rate when it comes to theatrical presentations in today’s shrinking entertainment markets.

The greatest playwright of the English speaking world was William Shakespeare. Four Hundred years later, Sir Noel Coward became a master playwright/actor/director of the 20th century who, along with the equally great 19th century author/playwright Oscar Wilde, best understood the uniqueness of their English society with its quirks, tics, high and low historical watermarks, that defines the English theatre to this day. 

I believe it’s safe to say that Coward’s plays: “Blithe Spirt”, his deliciously entertaining take on British comedy plays of veddy, veddy, drawing-room, comedy of manners style, and his achingly poignant romantic drama of “Brief Encounter,” are but two classic examples of his power to touch audiences.

The Kentwood Players have once again tapped the directorial gifts of Gail Berardi who delivers another winning production of fast-paced, energetic, hilarious, British comedy that is lovingly spiced with farce elements in her production of “Blithe Spirit.”  Kentwood audiences will fondly remember her staging of “Present Laughter” a couple of season ago, as do I.

As gifted a director as Ms. Berardi is, and she is very talented indeed, she doesn’t however, work the magic all by herself. She will quickly mention how blessed she is to have such a fabulous ensemble cast where everyone is on the same wave-length.   But more about the director’s vision and the performances of the excellent cast later.

Playwright Coward lovingly pokes his playwright fingers into the eyes of upper crust, English society in an effort for others to better understand these ‘crazy Englishmen who love to go out in the noonday sun’ (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling).  We may speak the same language but culturally we’re accents and societies apart.  While we’re rugged individualism and optimistically driven, the British are tradition and discipline-oriented.  However, both views have supporters and both are worth a look-see when the opportunity is presented.

“Blithe Spirit” has continued to be a smash hit comedy since it first premiered on the London and Broadway stages in 1941.  The hilarious supernatural comedy with tones of farce centers on fussy and cantankerous socialite and successful novelist Charles Condomine (Michael Hovance), who invites the village’s eccentric “kooky” medium Madame Arcati (deliciously played by Joanna Churgin) to his home to conduct a séance, in the hope of gathering material for his next book.

The scheme, however, backfires during the séance when his annoying and temperamental, deceased first wife Elvira, (impishly played by Jessica Plotin) is accidently summoned from the ‘other side.” Elvira makes continual attempts to disrupt Charles’s marriage to his second wife, Ruth (Megan Blakeley a captivating, stunning brunette) who cannot see or hear Elvira during the séance or afterwards.

Also involved in the plan to have Madame Arcati conduct her séance is family physician and friend Dr. Bradman (George Kondreck) and Mrs. Bradman (Michele Selin).  Kelsey Weinstein plays the easily rattled but eager maid Edith, who turns in a little gem of a comedy performance.  

 Coward’s plotline and characters in “Blithe Spirit” have become the progenitor for numerous movies and plays over the years that feature comedy stories concerning the supernatural where only select characters can see and hear the “ghosts”.  The more modern movie with this “McGuffin-like plot-point is the 1978 comedy “Heaven Can Wait”, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. And, more recently, “Ghost” with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in 1990.  Anyone not familiar with those references are probably too young to appreciate well written, stage plays and movies.  Therefore, I recommend TCM or streaming Netflix as homework assignments.  Besides being informative they are highly entertaining.

Going to my memory book of memorable performances of actors who have performed in “Blithe Spirit” over the years Megan Blakeley is the best “Ruth” I have ever seen.  She brilliantly grabs that character; ingests her DNA and then delivers a mesmerizing performance where it’s difficult to not keep one’s eyes on her all the time she’s on-stage.  Noel Coward called those gifts “star quality.”

Professional credits pour out of her performance.  Timing is a gift.  It can’t be taught.  Either you have it or you don’t. Ms. Blakeley definitely has it and an acting skill-set along with a  broad range in the bargain. I found her Ruth performance to be flawless.  This entire production makes for a delightful evening in the theatre, and a theatre treat not to be missed.

Kudos also go to the nuanced performances of Michael Hovance as Charles Condomine, Joanna Churgin as Madame Acarti, and Jesicca Plotin as Elvira.   Director Gail Bernardi’s vision of bringing together talented and inventive performers and then orchestrating their performances into a terrific ensemble evening is the hallmark of gifted directors.  Her direction is seamless in its execution.  The Westchester Playhouse is fortunate to have Ms. Bernardi in its cadre of directors.

The Playhouse also is known for its technical mastery.  In the technical department, the creative team led by director Bernardi features a  functional set design by George Kondreck that allow plenty of space for the cast magic to take place along with the show’s special effects.

Lighting designer Michael Thorpe, Sound designer Susan Stangl, Costume designer Diana Mann, and co-designer Maria Cohen comprise the technical disciplines. 

The impressive production is produced by Susan Goldman Weisbarth who also is the Lobby Designer for “Blithe Spirit”.  The production is stage managed by Grecco Bray.

“Blithe Spirit” performs at the Westchester Playhouse in Los Angeles and runs through August 24, 2019.  It’s a must-see show!

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