Unique blend of romance, comedy and magic

The Colony Theater Company just unwrapped an early holiday gift for lovers of sweet romantic comedy — the magic-centric "Bell, Book and Candle." John van Druten's witty play moves quickly and softly, like a black cat sneaking by stealthily in the night.

There's very little substance to the shenanigans, but it succeeds on the level of slight, sweet time killer. The subtle narrative contains no intricate plot twists or visceral subtext, but what ends up onstage is inoffensive and pleasant while it lasts. Most uniquely, "Bell, Book and Candle" has to be one of the few plays appropriate to produce at both Halloween and Christmas.

"Bell, Book and Candle" drops us in the middle of a coven of witches on Christmas Eve, but at first you might mistake these suave occultists for extras from "Mad Men." They dress stylishly and drink booze constantly, and their after-hours behavior immediately recalls some of the crazy antics on that TV show. But these are witches, not advertising executives. The characters do, however, share a penchant for guilt-free hook-ups in the Big Apple on a regular basis.

Gillian Holroyd (Willow Geer) is a "modern" gal — at least for the year 1953. She lives alone in a gorgeous brownstone apartment in the Murray Hill district of New York City. Gillian is steadfastly single and unattached, mainly because witches of her kind cannot fall in love. If she ever experiences true love, she could lose her magical powers forever.

Gillian normally uses her abilities to cast spells and cause general havoc in the neighborhood. Her rakish brother Nicky (Will Bradley) focuses his energies on picking up girls. Gillian's silly Aunt Queenie (Mary Jo Catlett) likes to pull pranks on unsuspecting residents in the building.

When upstairs neighbor Shepherd Henderson (Michael A. Newcomer) stops by one day to complain about Aunt Queenie snooping around, something new and different begins to bubble up inside Gillian. She's intent on keeping Shepherd away from a rival from her youth, but there's some intense attraction she's aware of as well.

So Gillian casts a spell, and Shepherd is instantly smitten. He dumps his girlfriend, slacks off on his job, and begins spending every waking minute romancing Gillian. The staunchly independent gal chafes at the suffocation, and conflict looms on the horizon.

Director Richard Israel handles tone and pace well until the energy tails off toward the end. He made the correct decision to combine the second and third acts, which keeps the running time a proper length and makes the resolution more satisfying.

Other than a woeful attempt at using a poorly stuffed cat to stand in for Gillian's magical "familiar" Pyewacket, the technical aspects of the show are top notch.

Stephen Gifford's scenic design brings Gillian's expansive bachelorette pad to vibrant life.

Key art by Ricky Vodka — including Picasso-style paintings and a creepy voodoo mask — add much-needed authenticity to the witchcraft.

And costumes by Sharon McGunigle pop with vintage charm, from the eye-popping purples and pinks on slinky Gillian to the wizardly frocks worn by Aunt Queenie.

The cast is fine if unmemorable. Bradley brings snark and energy lacking in some of the others. TV addicts will instantly recognize Catlett from "Diff'rent Strokes" or one of her dozens of appearances on other iconic shows.

Unfortunately, some of their assets are wasted, as this supposed romantic comedy gets bogged down trying to say something important. When it sticks to the shtick, "Bell, Book and Candle" works the best of any Christmas/Halloween/Magic show around.

JAMES PETRILLO is a screenwriter and actor from Los Angeles.



What: "Bell, Book and Candle" by John van Druten

Where: The Colony Theatre Company, 555 N. Third St., Burbank, inside the Burbank Town Center parking structure

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 21

Tickets: $20 to $42 (student, senior and group discounts available)

Contact: (818) 558-7000 or visit http://www.colonytheatre.org

Bonus: Question-and-answer talk-back performance with the cast on Nov. 11, immediately following the show

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