Bell, Book and Candle fails to cast a spell

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By Doug Deuchler

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In such precarious times for the arts, it's thrilling to see an intrepid new theatrical troupe mounting work in our community. I missed the first Paradise Playhouse production of On Golden Pond last fall, but they've launched another new show, Bell, Book, and Candle, directed by Jim Leonard. This early 1950s comedy by John Van Druten is currently being performed in the new Open Door Theater space on Ridgeland Avenue just south of Harrison Street.

The cast works well as an ensemble. But I'm afraid this rather drowsy play has not aged well. It has its moments. But it's much less magical than it probably might have seemed over a half century ago.

Paradise Playhouse has launched an ambitious season of upcoming shows. This spring they're premiering a new work based on the 1965 Sidney Poitier film, A Patch of Blue. I applaud their commitment and dedication. But this particular production misses the mark.

Though this tale of a modern witch in love — a spoof on witchcraft — is occasionally amusing, there are no huge laughs. The thin but pleasant story line meanders too much. Alas, attention spans are not what they were mid-century, when the three-act formula was standard for Broadway comedies.

But the fault is not totally in the script. This sluggishly paced production needs more energy, more "joie de vivre," more warmth and spontaneity to be fully engaging. It never really hooked me.

Jillann Gabrielle plays Gillian, a discontented witch, restless and beguiling and looking for love. She lives in 1950s New York City with her black cat Pyewacket.

Shep, a puzzled publisher who lives upstairs and finds himself ensnared in the witch's spell, is played by Bato Prostran.

Dee Norman, well-remembered locally from the early days of Circle Theatre, is delightful as Gillian's daffy Aunt Queenie, also a witch who lives in Gillian's building. The old enchantress admits she would never have gone into witchcraft if her parents had allowed her to go onstage.

Playing Gillian's spunky warlock brother is David Bontumasi, who is quite charming and funny.

Shep (Prostran), the shaggy-haired, unsuspecting neighbor, is actually engaged to another woman who coincidentally was Gillian's college rival. When he drops by to use Gillian's telephone on Christmas Eve, she immediately decides she wants him and casts a spell on him so he'll dump his fiancee and fall for her.

It's all for Gillian's amusement, but things heat up when the dalliance suddenly seems more significant. Then there's a huge plot complication: Though witches apparently are able to have sexual relationships with "normal" folks, it's risky. If they do fall in love, they lose their powers.

Director Jim Leonard, well-remembered in this community for his many decades of performances, plays a boozy hack writer who is convinced New York is chock full of witches' covens. He's the author of a book on modern-day witchcraft. In the '50s alcoholism sometimes functioned as comic relief.

Gillian's black cat, Pyewacket, is actually a stuffed toy kitty, but this gimmick works.

Pre-curtain and intermission music fits the theme and mood of the show, such as Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" from Pal Joey and Frank Sinatra singing "Witchcraft."

Leading lady Gabrielle is also producer and artistic director of Paradise Productions. She's writing a one-woman show about Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, known for her biting commentary and her wild hats. That sounds like great fun.

The smart set, designed by Gabrielle, is nicely dressed with lots of supernatural and "witchy" touches. The costumes are apt, such as Gillian's Chinese lounging pajamas in the first act. Aunt Queenie is a veritable witch fashion plate.

The play is not really an early '50s period piece, but there are allusions to stuff like the Kinsey Report, the Roxy Theater, and "un-American activities" that do set its era.

The sitcom Bewitched, which ran for many seasons on TV, is often considered a spin-off of this comedy.

Since it's become known that playwright Van Druten was a closeted homosexual, some now see Bell, Book, and Candle as an allegory of underground gay life in '50s Greenwich Village.

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