Angela Lansbury has returned to her first love — the theater — in triumph, earning rave reviews for her appearance as a larger-than-life medium in the revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." Angela Lansbury has already won four Tony Awards for lead actress in a musical — "Mame" (1966), "Dear World" (1969), "Gypsy" (1975) and "Sweeney Todd" (1979). Two years ago, she contended for the first time as lead actress in a play for "Deuce" but was bested by Julie White for "The Little Dog Laughed." Were she to win for this new role in the old chestnut "Blithe Spirit," Lansbury would be tied with Julie Harris who has five Tony Awards, all for lead actress in a play.
The original 1941 run of "Blithe Spirit" predated the Tony Awards by six years. However for the 1987 revival, Geraldine Page contended as lead actress for playing Madame Arcati. She lost to Linda Lavin in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound." Page never won a Tony in her three bids and did not win an Oscar till nod No. 8 in 1985 for "A Trip to Bountiful."
While Angela Lansbury lost only that last Tony race of hers, she failed to prevail in any of her three Oscar nods for supporting actress ("Gaslight," 1944; "The Picture of Dorian Gray," 1945; and "The Manchurian Candidate," 1962). And she holds the dubious distinction of having lost more Emmy races for acting than any other performer — 18 times including 12 consecutive nominations for lead actress in a drama series for "Murder, She Wrote" from 1985 to 1996.
One of Lansbury's chief rivals for the lead actress in a play Tony will be two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda ("Klute," "Coming Home") who opened to her own great reviews for "33 Variations" last week. While Lansbury had been away from Broadway for a quarter of a century before returning in "Deuce," Fonda was last on stage in 1963. While she contended for a Tony for her 1960 Broadway debut, Fonda lost that race. However, unlike Lansbury, she does have an Emmy Award, winning on her only try for her lead performance in the 1984 telefilm "The Dollmaker." And were Fonda to win the Tony, she would become the 17th performer to have taken the triple crown of acting awards.
Among the critics who cheered the loudest for Lansbury was Ben Brantley of the New York Times who said, "It’s Madame Arcati who walks, or rather dances, away with the show, as she has always been wont to do. Those who know Ms. Lansbury only as the bland, level-headed Jessica Fletcher of television’s 'Murder, She Wrote”' may not be aware of this actress’s depth and variety of technique."
Michael Kuchwara of the AP thought, "Lansbury's performance also captures the essence of the elegant Coward fizz, champagne bubbles of witty conversation that should trip along effortlessly." And for Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News, "Watching the 83-year-old Lansbury work her magic is endless fun, as she seemingly channels past characters, from the loopy Mrs. Lovett from 'Sweeney Todd' to the cagey detective Jessica Fletcher from 'Murder, She Wrote.' You wonder what the actress will do next, and when she launches into her go-into-my-trance dance, she’s simply hilarious."
Photos: Shubert Theatre