Nancy Sasso Janis
A revamped version of ‘Bell, Book & Candle’ by John Van Druten opened last night at TheatreWorks New Milford to a decent crowd. One gracious patron in front of me brought along enough candy to share. A program insert gave credit to Matt Austin for restaging the production and Richard Pettibone redesigned the set that was quickly built by James Hipp, Ash Cartwright, Frank Russo and Scott Wyshynski.
Set in the fifties, the romantic comedy stars a fashionable young witch living in New York. Her brother Nicky and slightly kooky Aunt Queenie also possess magical powers that they use on an unsuspecting and hunky neighbor of Gillian’s named Shep. The action begins on Christmas Eve and ends some two months later in this three act play.
The piece predates both Jeannie and her Major Nelson and Samantha, Darrin and Endora and is probably a little less silly. Some might argue that it all feels a little dated as opposed to “of the period,” but the performances of the five members of the TheatreWorks cast made the production both funny and pretty magical.
James Hipp (Bernard in TheatreWorks’ ‘Boeing, Boeing’) played the man upstairs with charm and a rapid-fire delivery, and looked very dashing in his tuxedo. Jody Bayer (Berthe in ‘Boeing, Boeing’) also returned to this stage to play the “auntie” decked out in full fifties garb. Matt Austin, who also was terrific in ‘Boeing, Boeing,’ played the warlock Nicky with a twinkle in his magical eye. Jeff Rossman, a veteran of many local productions, made his TheatreWorks debut in the role of Sidney Redlitch, the manipulated author of a book on witchcraft.
As the magical Gillian, Jenny Schuck reminded me of a young Stockard Channing. Lithe and lovely, she practically glides around this new stage in various black ensembles that fit her perfectly. This witch is more a smart ingenue than an Elphaba, and despite the fact that she will lose her magical powers if she falls in love, we root for her happiness. Ms. Schuck was perfectly cast in this leading role as she matched Mr. Hipp word for word, and had to light more onstage matches than any actress I have ever seen.
Admittedly, I have only seen the previous set in photos, but I found its replacement to be more muted and just as magical. Kudos to the cast members who had to relearn their blocking on this new set in a very short time; they all made it work nicely. Lighting by Mr. Pettibone and Mr. Wyshynski added to the magic.
In case you are wondering, the title refers to three items used in excommunication rites over a thousand years ago and the name of Gillian’s “familiar spirit” cat, Pyewacket, became popular after the movie version of ‘Bell, Book & Candle’ was released in 1958.
'Bell, Book & Candle' runs at TheatreWorks New Milford on December 18,19,20, 31 and January 2,3 8,9,10 2016.