John Van Druten’s 1950 comedy Bell, Book and Candle cast a spell on audiences when it first materialized on Broadway, spinning the tale of a New York publisher who falls for a sexy witch.
Unfortunately, the play’s magic has faded over the years, due mainly to the somewhat racist, sexist material in the original script, so Van Druten’s comedy is rarely performed. In other words, Bell, Book and Candle is ripe for reinvention.
Now playing at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, the show has undergone a bit of a shape-shift, thanks to director Thomas Chapman. Keeping the central characters and story, he’s excised most of the offending language and taken a swipe at updating the material, moving the tale from 1950s New York to the modern day.
The updates, however, seem a little too little, and are often confusing, placing cell phones in the hands of characters who still, when forced to use a land line, end up calling the operator to ask to be connected. References to the Kinsey Reports and HUAAC stick out distractingly as leftovers from the 1950s and call attention to the fact that the script is overlong (it was originally performed in three acts), overwritten and undercooked.
What makes it more than watchable is a strong cast and an energetic production that has amped up the magic effects, working on a magnificent set in the intimate Condiotti theater. Gillian (Liz Jahren, a gale-level force of nature here) is an emotionally stormy but extremely powerful witch who’s learned to use her powers more discreetly than her eccentric aunt, Queenie (Mary Gannon Graham, a frothy, giddy delight), and her morally flexible brother, Nicky (Peter Warden, blending hamminess with an edge of danger).
To help capture the amorous attentions of upstairs neighbor Shep Henderson (Larry Williams, bringing a nicely grounded energy to a relatively straight role), Gillian summons the witch-chasing anthropologist Sidney Redlitch-Fong (a hysterical David Yen), whom Shep hopes to sign to a lucrative publication deal.
The further Gillian falls for Shep the more complicated her family relationships become, resulting in a series of semi-madcap shenanigans—and a big choice for Gillian. Though the thin, long, unwieldy script does cut into the fun, the cast has a blast turning it all into something magical—and magic, it turns out, in the right hands, can be seriously contagious.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★½