Apple Tree Theatre

If 1963-64 was the season of the British Invasion in rock and roll, it was no less so in theater. Highlights on the Broadway calendar between September 1963 and the following August included Richard Burton in Hamlet, Paul Scofield in King Lear, Alec Guinness in Dylan, Albert Finney in Luther, Emlyn Williams in The Deputy, John Gielgud, Edith Evans, and Margaret Leighton in Homage to Shakespeare–and Beatrice Lillie in High Spirits, the musical version of Noel Coward’s 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit. As Madame Arcati, the eccentric psychic who inadvertently conjures up a man’s deceased first wife to the consternation of his very much alive second one, Lillie brought her patented brand of music-hall camp–all quirks and tics and droll moues and fluttery foolishness–to American audiences used to splashier, earthier performing styles.

The audiences that saw it loved it–but not that many saw it. When it came to musical comedy, 1963-64 was also the season for big, brassy, high-stepping, all-American shows. Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, and Janis Paige in Here’s Love were the big winners, swamping quirkier attractions such as Angela Lansbury in Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, Inga Swenson in Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 110 in the Shade, and Florence Henderson in Noel Coward’s The Girl Who Came to Supper as well as Lillie.

Thus it’s taken 36 years for High Spirits to make its way to a Chicago stage–according, at least, to the folks at Highland Park’s Apple Tree Theatre, who claim their production is the show’s Chicago-area premiere. I have no reason to doubt them; and I am one particularly inclined to support the retrieval of unusual, neglected items from the storage bins of show business. Still, the main achievement of Seith Reines’s staging of this musical by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray is that it demonstrates that there can be good reasons for neglect.

High Spirits, conceived as a vehicle for Lillie, elevated the supporting role of Arcati into the lead. Lillie was outfitted with a series of outlandish costumes, a backup chorus of flying ghosts and dancing beatniks, and an entrance on an oversized bicycle. In a similarly extravagant spirit, the ghostly Elvira (played by husky-voiced Tammy Grimes) was rigged to fly Peter Pan-style around the stage while teasing her perplexed former husband Charles (a pre-Equalizer Edward Woodward). In his director’s note, Reines calls the original High Spirits “the victim of over-production” and says his intention, in eliminating the chorus and many of the stage effects, was “to restore the gem-like charm of the original script of Blithe Spirit.”

But that charm was compromised by adapters Martin and Gray before the special-effects boys let things get out of hand. Indeed, it’s clear that the “over-production” was designed to bolster the authors’ weak material–the mannered songs, Coward-like but decidedly not Coward, and a perversely rewritten ending in which Elvira succeeds in dragging her former husband with her beyond the grave. In Blithe Spirit, Charles evades Elvira’s murderous mischief, leaving her to storm invisibly around the house while he goes off a free, living man; having Charles die, even in a deliberately silly fantasy like this, robs Coward’s play of the life-affirming energy that adds substance to its la-di-da surface.

In attempting to unclutter the material, Reines reveals its inadequacies. Arcati’s “The Bicycle Song,” for instance, is performed without a bicycle–a choice that makes no sense, since a bike should be workable on the Apple Tree stage; in any case, Colleen Kane as Arcati is left to flounder around with not very interesting music to sing and no prop to distract us from that.

Besides gimmickry, the original High Spirits had stars with distinctive, sharply honed British style. For Apple Tree’s production, Reines has assembled a talented group of singing actors, but only one of them has the star quality needed to bolster the unimpressive material. She’s Kathy Santen, and she is something. With an electric stage presence, a rafter-shaking voice that’s also capable of erotic nuance, and a versatility that puts her in the front ranks of Chicago theater, Santen has in the past proven able to rise to, or above, just about any material she’s given–from Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant Company at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace to Rupert Holmes’s submediocre The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Candlelight. As Elvira, Santen is the perfect ethereal girl–kittenish and cunning, delightful and deadly. And except for her first song, “You’d Better Love Me”–ill-advisedly jazzed-up in a coarse new arrangement that doesn’t fit Elvira’s character at all–her musical numbers have polish and wit and sex appeal that Coward would have admired.

David Nisbet, who was too shallow in the role of Bill Cracker in Court Theatre’s Happy End last season, is quite at home as Charles, the debonair, faintly world-weary leading man familiar from so many Coward plays. His duet with Santen, “Forever and a Day,” is far more touching than the undistinguished song has a right to be. Margo Buchanan, a fine performer too long absent from local stages, is somewhat ill at ease as Ruth, Charles’s practical, slightly domineering wife. The upper-crust attitude she essays in the first scenes don’t at all suit this actress whose best quality is her forthrightness; she’s much stronger once Elvira enters the scene and gives her an antagonist to work off.

As Arcati, Colleen Kane–a talented comedienne but no Bea Lillie–was still trying, on opening night, to blend her own effervescent youthfulness and natural little-girl voice into the character of an older woman; she might be better off just playing Arcati as a youngster and giving greater rein to her naturally funny persona.

Russ Borski’s 1930s art-deco penthouse living-room set establishes the perfect tone of once-chic, now-antique urbanity that Coward embodies to a 1990 audience. It would do very nicely indeed as the setting for a production of Blithe Spirit–which, if that’s what Reines wanted to do, he might just as well have done.