A Bewitching Production

The supernatural seems to hold great fascination with the creative. Be it vampires, werecreatures, witches, goblins, zombies, or ghouls, you can be sure that there are stories about them, and these stories will show up on the stage, the movie screen, and various personal entertainment venues. That said, these stories come in waves. The current “in thing” is vampires, but at one time, witches were everywhere (you can see some here, and there’s a real good discussion of the subject here). From the witches of Shakespeare to Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, from Samantha to the Charmed-trio, from the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz to Elphaba in Wicked, they keep reappearing. Their portrayal ranges from the scary hag to the frothy CYT (cute young thing), with some being both (cough, Shannon Dougherty, cough). With this wide variety, did they have anything in common? I think so. First, the witch was the embodiement of the powerful woman, with how the witch was ultimately treated in the story reflective of the pervailing attitude towards powerful women. Second, these were women you did not want to cross: for with all witches, revenge is a dish to be served with embellishment and encrustations.

I mention all of this a prelude, for last night went to the Colony Theatre in Burbank to see a play about a witch: “Bell, Book, and Candle” (BB&C), witten by John Van Druten in 1948. There are some who say this was one of the insprations for the 1960s TV series “Bewitched”; it was made into a movie starting James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Jack Lemmon in 1958. BB&C is the story about a young beautiful witch who casts a spell on a young man to make him love her…. and what happens afterwards. I should note that in Van Druten’s witch-mythology, there are a few rules: witches cannot love, cannot blush, and cannot cry, and if they fall in love, they lose their powers.

Oh, you want a more detailed synopsis to see if this really inspired Bewitched. In the mid-1950s, Gillian Holroyd, a beautiful young witch, returns to her brownstone in NYC and falls in lust with her upstairs tenant, Shepherd Henderson. After meeting him, she indicates to her brother, Nicky and her aunt, Queenie, that she is going to try to make him fall in love with her without using magic. But when she learns that he is engaged to her college rival, Merle Kittridge, she casts a spell on him and he falls in love with her. She also uses a spell to bring Sidney Redlitch, an author of a book on witchcraft that Shepherd wants to publish, to her apartment. The relationship between Gillian and Shepherd is going well and lustily… until he proposes to her. She accepts and decides to give up witchcraft. When Nicky reveals that he is working with Redlitch on a book about New York witches, she is forced to use witchcraft to prevent publication, and outs herself as a witch to Shepherd. He’s OK with that, until he learns from Aunt Queenie that the spell was primarily because of the rivalry with Merle. He pays $5,000 to have the spell broken and leaves, and Gillian then learns that she is without powers, for she has fallen in love. Will they get back together? C’mon, what do you think?

As usual, we need to look at this in two ways: how well does the story hold together, and how well was it executed on the stage. The story was a 1950s romantic comedy. Cute, frothy, and reflective of the time. If we look at it from today’s point of view, we see a powerful independent woman who has to have her man to be happy, and once she gets him, she loses her power and independence. That’s very 1950s: if the story was sent today, either the lusty relationship would be sufficient, or when the eventual marriage happens, Gillian would regain her powers. But for what the story was, it was fun to watch. It was two hours of escapism where you didn’t have the urge to look at your watch.

Of course, this was helped by the excellent actors. In the lead positions were Willow Geer as Gillian Holroyd and Michael A. Newcomer as Shepherd Henderson. These two had a youthful loving chemistry together and were a delight to watch. Geer, a young beautiful redhead, did a wonderful job of projecting a 1950s urbane image; you could easily see her out at nightclubs, mixing martinis, and making men bow to her will with just her smile. Newcomer was a great foil: a handsome sharp young fellow who knew what he wanted and thought he was in control of his life… until he suddenly fell in love. In the supporting positions were Will Bradley as Gillian’s brother, Nicky, and Mary Jo Catlett as Aunt Queenie. Bradley captured the young bachelor with the playful, troublemaking side quite well; we’ve seen him before as Mordred in the Pasadena Playhouse “Camelot” where he was a similar young troublemaker. Catlett plays the doddering aunt with great comic timing—we’ve seen her in similar roles on Diff’rent Strokes and numerous other productions. Rounding out the cast was Benton Jennings as the author Sidney Redlitch.

All of the actors were members of æ Actors Equity. This is a footnote you often see me write, but I want to highlight it this time because all the actors did in their bios. Bradley wrote “He’d like to thank … everyone at the Colony for … allowing him to live an uncompromised life.” Catlett noted that the Colony was “Equity Actor Friendly”. Geer commended the Colony for “sticking to the union” (a phrase that reflects her family upbringing as the daughter of Ellen Geer and the granddaughter of Will Geer). Jennings noted his AEA membership prominently, and Newcomer explicitly thanked the Colony “for operating with an Equity contract that provides for pension and health.” The last indicates why this is important: AEA, an actors union, helps to ensure the things in life that an actor needs: income, health benefits, and decent working conditions. Not all of the theatres in LA can accord Equity actors: for example, both REP and Cabrillo tend to use a mix of Equity and non-Equity—the REP due to its size (81 seats), and Cabrillo due to its nature as a regional talent house. Larger theatres such as the Ahmanson and the Pantages are 100% equity. But mid-sized theatres are often in a bind, and thus it is nice to see a smaller >99 seat theatre have the strong commitment to providing actors with a decent working environment. But I digress…

The production was directed by Richard Israel, with whom we are familiar from shows such as “Big”, “Assassins”, and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). Israel helped the talented cast to excel in their portrayals of these characters. Leesa Freed (also an AEA member) was the Production Stage Manager. Barbara Beckley is the artistic director, and I commend her for doing something I love: introducing every show with humor and warmth that makes you feel a part of the Colony family. To me, this turns a theatre from a cold presenting property to a warm place where you feel like you are a team member with the actors and the producing team.

Turning to the technical, where the Colony is blessed with a pool of regular excellent talent. Stephen Gifford did the scenic design, creating a 1950s apartment with wonderful danish-modern touches, and the requisite minibar. Set dressing and props were by MacAndME. Costume Designer Sharon McGunigle captured the 1950s well with Gillian’s dresses and Shepherd’s stylish suits with narrow ties. Cricket S. Myers did her usual excellent job with the sound and sound effects (I particularly liked the tinkling in the background for magic), and Luke Moyer did an effective job with the lighting, including well timed snap cues. Robert T. Kyle was the technical director.

Bell, Book, and Candle” continues at the Colony Theatre for one more week, ending on November 21. Ticketing information is here. The Colony Theatre is located in Burbank, next to the Burbank Mall, in the parking structure near Ikea. Two productions remain in the Colony season: “Moonlight and Magnolias” (running February 2–March 6, 2011) and “The All-Night Strut (March 30–May 1, 2011). I’ll note that Moonlight and Magnolias” will be at REP East approximately the same time (January 21–February 19), allowing one to compare and contrast an 81-seat theatre production with a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors with a 276-seat 100% Equity production. Knowing both producing teams well, I’m sure both will be excellent and it will be interesting to see the nuanced differences. I must note, however, that the Colony had it scheduled first :-).

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week brings Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 21). November closes with two shows: The Wild Party” at Malibu Stage Company on Friday November 26, and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for Saturday November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson on December 18, and for Karen and Ern, West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre on December 24 (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices).

Looking briefly into 2011: January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Moonlight and Magnolia” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with the 2nd production of Moonlight and Magnolias, this time at the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.