Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Millbrook: "Bell, Book, and Candle"

The Millbrook Community Players, Inc. are currently showing John Van Druten's romantic comedy Bell, Book, and Candle (known to many from the 1958 film starring Kim Novak and James Stewart), and have invited comparisons to the film by borrowing parts of its sound score in their production.

Co-directed by Ginger Collum and Susan Chain, the five actors and one cat tell the story of Gillian Holroyd [Karla McGhee], the leader of a coven of New York City witches, and her bewitching of her book publisher neighbor Shepherd Henderson [Roger Humber] -- partly because she is attracted to him, and partly to take revenge on a long ago college rival who she discovers happens to be engaged to Shep. Using her cat Pyewacket as a "familiar" with which to cast the spell, Shep instantly falls in love with Gillian; but she can't return his ardor in kind because tradition has it that witches can not fall in love.

Abetted by her wacky Aunt Queenie [Tracy Allgrove, reminiscent of Marion Lorne's Aunt Clara in television's Bewitched] and her immature prankster brother Nicky [Michael Hartman in his stage debut] who complicate matters while trying to help, the plot gets further tangled by the entrance of Sidney Redlitch [Charlie Mulcahy's over-the-top drunkard calls out for more variety] who is writing a book about New York's witches.

Shep doesn't believe in witches, but will consider Redlitch's manuscript; Gillian questions Redlitch's credibility, especially when he consults Madame de Passe who Gillian knows to be a second-rate practitioner; but Nicky offers to help Redlitch with his research.

No spoiler alerts here -- it is a romantic comedy, after all -- so the ending is fairly predictable; and Van Druten's 1950s landscape with its naive innocence comes across as a bit dated, no matter how charming. And there is such a lot of exposition in Van Druten's first act, that little else happens to entertain till Act Two.

Mr. Humber plays Shep's very compliant demeanor with ease, and Ms. McGhee occasionally demonstrates Gillian as a real force to contend with; but their sexual chemistry is all too tentative, and her transition from a sexy witch to an ordinary human being needs more distinction. We need to believe in the magic. -- Ms. Allgrove ranges from haughty New York matron to a peculiar bohemian; and Mr. Hartman's behavior is too much in check for one described as a merry prankster.

The production is pleasant enough, and a diverting entertainment for the end of Summer.  With quicker pacing and focus on the larger than life characters Van Druten penned, this Bell, Book, and Candle could attain its magic.