Broadway World – BREATH OF SPRING is “riotous”

Production teams at Theatre 40 expertly present mid-20th Century British comedy better than almost any other theater in town. So it was no surprise to find out the group decided to present the riotous BREATH OF SPRING by Peter Coke to open their 51st season, directed by Bruce Gray and produced by David Hunt Stafford, the dynamic duo production team who have brought so many great shows to their stage.

Written in 1958, BREATH OF SPRING has nothing to do with the season. In fact, it is a type of silver mink highly prized among fur aficionados. And while we may have differing opinions about wearing fur, there is no doubt in the mid-20th Century that lovely fur coats, stoles and jackets were often worn not only to keep warm but to show the wearer had “made it” into high society.

The comedy centers on Dame Beatrice (Melinda DeKay) and her friends and lodgers, a tight-knit bunch who concoct an operation to return a stolen fur before its owner discovers that it’s missing. They have such fun doing it that they plan future schemes not to return furs, but to steal them. They do this not for personal gain, but to give the proceeds of their felonious fur thefts to the deserving needy. You could say that they are modern day Robin Hoods. But however well-intentioned, their schemes are bound to be discovered by Scotland Yard leading to attempted cover-ups that will have you in stitches of laughter.

Each of the actors are perfectly cast beginning with the instigator of the first crime, Dame Beatice’s maid Lily (Alison Blanchard), who stole a neighbor’s Breath of Spring mink jacket to express her appreciation for Dame Bee’s willingness to employ her after a stint in jail when no one else would. Lily is a less than charming assistant until she is drafted by the fur theft team to assist them in covering their crimes when Scotland Yard comes calling at the door. Blanchard’s ability to stay calm in the middle of chaos steals the show, as does her soft shoe routine with Joshua Olkowski (who portrays Pape and the Singing Cop) between scenes to allow the others time to change costumes.

Along with DeKay, the amateurs at crime include Lady Alice Miller, portrayed by Theatre 40 favorite Katherine Henryk as a woman whose fortunes have gone, but not her desire to live life to the fullest. To find her third wealthy husband, she sets her sights on Brigadier Albert Rayne (Lary Ohlson), affectionately known as Bertie, another boarder at Dame Bee’s even though she is aware of her friend’s same interest in him. When the two decide he is perfect to lead the team with his military ability to plan attacks, the stage is set for the trio to romp through each scene.

But needing a few more people to round out the team, the three decide to ask Miss Nanette Parry (Flora Plumb, another Theatre 40 fan favorite), a boarder who has been downgraded to a language tutor for foreigners. It’s her ability to speak several languages and distract others by correcting their poor diction which allows her to assist in creating the perfect crime scenarios.

Expert comedienne Jean Kaufman takes on the role of comic foil Miss Elizabeth Hatfield, known as “Hattie” to the rest of the group. Kaufman submerges herself into Hattie’s panic disorder attacks which almost cause the thieves’ downfall with Scotland Yard. As each heist begins, you will find yourself wondering if poor Hattie’s emotions will get the best of her and ruin it for everyone, perhaps even fainting with terror during the middle of the effort. I know I wondered if jail was in their futures or would they get away with their thievery? See it to find out because I am not telling!

Jeff G. Rock’s sterling set design includes hidden places for hiding the many stolen furs, which were generously loaned to the production by Lola Fisher, Naomi Nadelman and Penelope Windust. As always, costume design by Michele Young earnestly adds realism to the time period as well as the rising financial status of the characters as their fortunes increase.