By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun
7:05 PM PDT, September 20, 2012
Colonial Players ushers in its 64th season with John Van Druten's "Bell, Book and Candle," a romantic comedy that debuted in the same 1949-1950 season as the theater company.
It was first presented by Colonial Players in 1953 — the company's fifth season, when it was housed in the Annapolis Recreation Center on Compromise Street — and again presented at CP's current East Street Theatre location in 1979.
"After more than half a century, this play still has the ability to charm, amuse and arouse empathy," director Debbie Barber-Eaton says in her program notes.
Although it may lack the staying power of Annapolis' premier all-volunteer theater, this play does have enchanting visual appeal. The chic set evokes the nostalgic glamour of mid-20th-century New York, sophistication interlaced with tokens of witchery along with tasteful Christmas baubles, including a white tree artfully trimmed with red ornaments. Properties designer Joann Gidos does a fine job of ferreting out these treasures to convince us that we are back in the 1950s.
Costume designer Jean Carroll Christie has created luscious gowns for beguiling witch Gillian Holroyd, played by Ali Vellon, who wears every costume with notable panache. The same is true for outlandish Queenie Holroyd, played with distinctive flair by Carol Cohen, who looks as if she could have stepped out of the 1958 film version of the play. The men's costumes are appropriate and help define their characters.
In this play filled with instances of spontaneous magic, lighting is all-important, and Eric Lund expertly handles the emotion-elevating design as well as the spell-casting moments. The sound design of Wes Bedsworth is equally important in creating these crucial magical moments.
Barber-Eaton does her usual fine job directing, assembling a first-rate cast and pacing the action briskly, despite its occasionally being weighed down with superfluous dialogue. Barber-Eaton subtly communicates her own warm affection for this seemingly gentler era.
The story centers on lovely young witch Gillian, who lives in a chic Manhattan apartment with her black cat Pyewacket. Her ditsy Aunt Queenie, also a witch, lives upstairs. Her brother, Nicky, is a warlock who often visits to form a mischievous trio who enjoy conjuring up trickery.
Gillian has become interested in her upstairs neighbor — attractive, somewhat square bachelor Shep Henderson, and she grows more intrigued upon learning that he is engaged to a school rival, Merle Kittridge, who was mean to her in college. Although such acts are frowned upon by witch ethics, Gillian decides to break up the romance by casting a spell on Shep that will cause him to fall in love with her instantly.
The spell works soon after Shep enters her apartment on Christmas Eve, asking to use her phone. After he calls fiancee Merle to tell her he'll be late, he becomes delayed for the entire evening. Shep is instantly attracted to Gillian, with steamy results.
Soon, Shep is so totally besotted that he engages in a whirlwind courtship, begging Gillian to marry him. Counter to the average 1950s romantic comedy, where the female partner is eager to marry, Gillian is reluctant to get seriously involved, realizing that if she were to fall in love with a human, she would lose her powers.
Because she cares for him, Gillian decides to tell Shep the truth about herself. This upsets Shep enough to leave, and when Gillian discovers she no longer possesses her powers to win him back, she abandons her witchcraft for a mundane job.
Upset at his sister's romance, Nicky is relieved to hear it is over and tries to enlist Gillian in assisting author Sidney Reditch, who has written a book about the world of witches, a project Nicky is involved in and one that Shep once wanted to publish.
Gillian refuses and discourages Nicky from remaining involved in this publishing venture that would reveal too many trade secrets.
Husband and wife Jason and Ali Vellon are perfectly cast as lovers Shep and Gillian, having no problem creating notable chemistry. Ali Vellon enhances her every gown, projecting a bewitching sorcery. She magically transitions from witch to sensitive young woman experiencing love.
As Shep, Jason Vellon is equally skilled at transitioning — first from square and stodgy to passionate lover, and later from entranced lover to assertive male, refusing to continue to be manipulated.
As Aunt Queenie, Cohen lights up her every scene while casting a warm glow that spreads across the stage to touch receptive audience members.
Jason Vaughan brings an amusing peevishness to warlock brother Nicky, and Jeffrey Mille brings the required oafishness to hopelessly misinformed author Reditch.
If we can ignore such dated lines as, "Gee, that's swell, Miss Holroyd," we may be able to enjoy this romantic comedy for its period charm.
And there is also the marvelous green-eyed cat, Bridget, casting her own spell as Pyewacket.
Weekend performances continue Thursday to Sunday through Oct. 6. For reservations, call the box office at 410-268-7373.
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