Calling the Spirits

By Laura Latzko

Don Bluth brings Noel Coward’s spooky work to the stage 

Shows exploring the other world and séances are often presented in a spooky way. In Noel Coward’s play “Blithe Spirit,” conjuring up spirits ensues in hilarity. 

The Don Bluth Front Row Theatre will present the show through Saturday, May 4. 

The company produced the show six years in the living room of Don Bluth, the theater’s founder, director and producer. 

Bluth was a Disney animator, best known for his work on films such as “The Secret of NIMH,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Rescuers,” “Anastasia” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” 

In “Blithe Spirit,” author Charles Condomine and his wife Ruth host a dinner party and séance as part of his research for a novel on a homicidal medium. They are joined by Edith, the maid, and Doctor and Mrs. Bradman. 

The séance, run by eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati, results in an unexpected visitor. 

Directed by Janis Webb, the show stars Tom Koelbel as leading man Charles Condomine. 

The production’s cast is small, seven people. This is Webb’s second time directing with the company and Koelbel’s first acting in a company production. Koelbel regularly performs with Theatre Artists Studio in shows such as “Inherit the Wind” and “I Never Sang for My Father.” Webb recently directed Mesa Encore Theatre’s production of “The Lion in Winter.” 

Set in an upper-class home in 1940s England, the farcical comedy “Blithe Spirit” was meant to take audiences away from the daily realities of the war.  

“It was very popular back then, séances and the other world. People who had a lot of money would hold séances for fun after dinner. There was just a lot of interest in the other world. And it was a time when in England, there was a lot of sacrificing going on and a lot of pain and suffering with the war. So, he wanted to write a play that was funny and would lift people’s spirits and yet delve into the afterlife, too,” Webb says. 

Webb says the show’s humor comes through in the dialogue. Koelbel has found the show’s lofty language to be the most difficult aspect of the role. 

“The dialogue has been quite a challenge. It’s very, very British, and apparently Noel Coward never met an adjective he hasn’t used,” Koelbel says. “I always try to do things that challenge me in one way or another, and that’s my challenge with the show is trying to make some of this verbose language seem natural coming out of my mouth.”

During the show, Koelbel must quickly change costumes between scenes. The part of Charles was originally written for Coward, who often acted in his own shows.  

“His high comedies are all pretty much the same. He wrote them so he could star in them. So, the lead person is always a similar person to Charles, and the wife is similar to the wife in this … He was a 1940s Woody Allen,” Webb says. 

In the show, the even-keeled, debonair Charles represents a direct contrast to the over-the-top Madame Arcati, who is portrayed by Joy Bingham Strimple.  

The production has been scaled down to accommodate the theater’s small size, with minimal props such as a rotary phone added to evoke the spirit of the 1940s. The play’s clothing and hairstyles, which include victory curls, pocket watches and gloves, also fit with the time period. Sound and lighting effects help bring audiences into the séance scenes. Webb says she had to remove elements such as slamming doors because within the space, curtains act as doors. 

Inside the theater, audience members are close to the auction onstage. 

Webb says putting on the show in such an intimate space requires that certain details look realistic.  

“It is so wonderful to have your audience so close to you, but then the flip side of that is they see absolutely everything,” Webb says. “So, you have to be sure there’s liquid in the glasses. You have to be sure there’s food on the trays.”

The actors have to play to different sides of the room and move constantly. Koelbel says the close proximity promotes a greater interplay between the actors and audience. 

“They are there with you, and you can feed off of them a little more easily,” Koelbel says. “You have some audiences that enjoy the show tremendously, but they’re just not a ‘ha, ha, ha’ kind of audience. But if you’re two feet away from them, you can see them enjoying themselves. You get that same kind of feeling as if they were laughing out loud.”  

Don Bluth Front Row Theatre’s
“Blithe Spirit” 

When: Various times, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through May 4

Where: Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8670 E. Shea Boulevard, Suite 103, Scottsdale

Cost: $27 

More info: 480-314-0841. donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com  

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