There are certain witches that everyone remembers. The trio in “Macbeth" brewed toil and trouble in a steaming cauldron. Elizabeth Montgomery from “Bewitched" did the dishes by twitching her nose. The Wicked Witch of the West melted when Dorothy threw a bucket of water on her. But unless you are a movie and theater aficionado, you may not immediately remember Gillian Holroyd of “Bell, Book and Candle,” the New York City witch who cast a spell to make a neighbor that she fancied fall in love with her.
John van Druten wrote the play in 1950 and it is definitely a reflection of its time: simple, complacent, and unsophisticated. By 2010, however, it has become a dated, predictable, period piece — an old chestnut. But still fun, in an “Importance of Being Earnest" sort of way. And still nostalgically pleasing to theatergoers “of a certain age.”
So The Colony Theatre in Burbank was packed to the rafters recently when Willow Geer took to the stage to become the latest Gillian. Geer, of the famous acting dynasty, is most often seen in Shakespearean dramas produced at her family’s outdoor Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon. She is a gifted actress, winsome and appealing, usually, but in this production she appears edgy and tense, and even a little shrill. Or at least that’s how she appeared on opening night. A little more bitchy than witchy.
The spell she casts on Shepherd Henderson (adroitly played by Michael A. Newcomer) begins as an act of vengeance when she discovers that he is soon to marry an old schoolmate of hers whom she particularly loathes. Then, after Shep falls into her trap, she begins to care for him in spite of herself.
The complication here is that witches can’t feel love. Nor can they cry. And so, like Pinocchio, Gillian wants to become a human. She is abetted by her Aunt Queenie, a rambunctious, flamboyant Mary Jo Catlett, who literally steals the show (no witchcraft involved). And by her brother Nicky (Will Bradley) whose witchery generally takes the form of practical jokes and minor mischiefs.
The fifth character is Sidney Redlitch (Benton Jennings), a writer bent on exposing the witch culture presumably thriving in New York. An interesting piece of trivia: in the 1958 movie, the part of the alcoholic writer was played by comedian Ernie Kovacs.
Richard Israel, co-artistic director of Hollywood’s West Coast Ensemble Theatre, makes his Colony Theatre directorial debut with this production and keeps everything moving at a bewitching pace. But the icing on this sugary confection is the clothing provided by costume designer Sharon McGunigle — especially the outfits worn by Aunt Queenie. The mix of patterns and colors are dizzying and dazzling, and Catlett carries them off with panache.
So ring the bell, open the book, and light the candle, and come and sit for a spell. Especially if you believe in witchcraft!
“Bell, Book and Candle" will continue at The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third St. in Burbank Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 21. Call (818) 558-7000 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.