Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Thoughts on "Bell, Book and Candle" at The Colony Theatre in Burbank

Tonight, I saw Bell, Book and Candle at The Colony Theatre in Burbank.

I'm a tad disappointed. Now I will freely admit to going to see this play mostly because of who was in it. Will Bradley, who was one-half of one my favorite plays, The Twentieth Century Way that ran at one of my favorite theatres, Boston Court was in this production, and I wanted to support him, since as I have said from the moment he bounded onstage in Camelot and into my consciousness, that I knew he would be destined for great things.

Unfortunately, this play was not one of them. Although this isn't to say it was bad, it was just - to use a colloquialism - meh.

For one, I think it was partly my fault. I wasn't feeling my total self tonight and for the first half of the production, the woman seated beside me was wearing the most hideous-smelling perfume that made me so excruciatingly nauseous, I was contemplating leaving entirely. I stuck it out, and thankfully, the theatre was half-full, so I was able to reseat myself away from this odoriferous offender and concentrate on the play, instead of attempting not to vomit.

The other issue was the theatre itself. Situated directly adjacent to the Burbank mall, the theatre feels more like an extension of the shopping structure itself than an actual separate cultural entity. Although its lobby is absolutely adorably charming and folksy, complete with "arts and crafts"-ish decor, the theatre itself is lacking. Something about its tiered seating reminded me of my days in the high school auditorium and I instantly got terrible vertigo. It didn't help that my Goldstar seat was up in the (near literal) nosebleed section. Although the theatre was charmingly small (270 seats), the layout just didn't feel as cozy or as welcoming as my beloved Boston Court. (Although I will say that the proliferation of exits and escape routes for such a tiny venue was an agoraphobic's dream!) The whole theatre smacked a little too much of two steps above bad dinner theatre, with the audience dressed as if going to a ballgame instead of a Friday night at a play.

Something was missing - in the production and the theatre itself.

The ushers were very kind (albeit too numerous for such a tiny venue), almost too kind. One grabbed me around the middle and dug her nails into my waist, calling me "honey" before nearly hoisting me over to my seat. There is friendly, yes, and then there is too friendly. This woman's behavior trod the line very closely.

But let's get to the play itself, shall we?

Photo by Michael Lamont

Bell, Book and Candle tells the story of Gillian Holroyd (Willow Geer) a young witch who bewitches a mortal man, Shepherd Henderson (Michael A. Newcomer) to fall in love with her. Witches are unable to shed tears or feel true love, so she seems to cast this spell as a way to get back at a childhood rival who also happens to be Shep's fiancée. As the play progresses, Gillian discovers she may truly be in love with Shep and has to make a choice between giving up her powers and falling in love, or remaining a witch and alone forever.

In the mix are her quirky Aunt Queenie (Mary Jo Catlett) and her sly and charming brother Nicky (Will Bradley). Auntie serves as nothing more than comic relief in this staging of the play, and although I adore Ms. Catlett (she was the housekeeper on Diff'rent Strokes and the voice of Mrs. Puff on Spongebob Squarepants for goodness' sake!), her performance felt a little "phoned in" and very "this is an actress we got for a cameo whom you will recognize which will make you feel safer watching a play." It felt like she was more there for "audience draw" than actual purpose. For me, the biggest disappointment was Ms. Geer's performance, which felt very sub-par. I found myself smacking my forehead throughout a lot of her more "intense" dialogue that sounded like she was reading off cue cards. The whole problem could be that she was utterly wrong for the role of Gillian, and I do hope her woodenness was either nerves or just poor casting. After seeing Rebecca Mozo's brilliant turn in In the Next Room at South Coast Rep a few weeks ago, perhaps for me, nothing could compare to that performance.

Photo by Michael Lamont

I'm now kicking myself I didn't see Michael A. Newcomer in Playboy of the Western World when it ran in Glendale earlier this year. He was wonderful as Shepherd, and really lent such great charm to the role that I could easily see him as the dashing Christy of Playboy. He also continued my absolutely hilarious and bizarre "body count" in which every play I've ever seen since living in L.A. has had some sort of male nudity in it. (Hey, I'm not complaining!) The romance between Geer and Newcomer really felt forced, especially when compared with the smouldery passion I saw in Oedipus El Rey earlier this year. Without being biased (honestly!), Will Bradley pretty much stole the show as Nicky, gliding across the stage with such fluidity, and adding these hilarious little catlike twitches and reactions to the character that made him sparkle. A lot of the audience around me murmured in appreciation at his lithe grace and I heard several people chatting excitedly about "the brother" during intermission, so it wasn't just me. Mr. Bradley is a great actor full stop and I do hope his next production is better than this one.

Perhaps I was expecting too much. This was a local production at a small theatre, but then again, every single one of Boston Court's productions (another small theatre) have been so phenomenal and professional, that after those, this was a big letdown. The sets were very basic and the sound design was tinny. On the positive side, the acoustics in The Colony were phenomenal. Perhaps everyone was miked, but it was still nice to hear the actors' words as clear as if you were standing right beside them. Sharon McGunigle's costume design was absolutely stunning, each of Gillian's dresses more adorable than the last, the final dress culminating in a stunning swath of emerald green that suited Ms. Geer's creamy features and auburn hair to a tee.

Photo by Michael Lamont

I stayed for the Talkback after the play, and discovered that the director had wanted to add the element of "giving yourself away" to someone when you fall in love, but I just couldn't find that in this production. I've always loved the idea of this play of love as a type of magic, but the "spark" between the principals just wasn't there, and that really left me sadly flat. The whole play felt vapid and hollow, like (again) something that I can't put my finger on was missing. If I can go off again momentarily (if only for fellow fans reading this) Will also stole the Talkback with his silly asides and easy joking demeanor. He mentioned that he was most proud of the role he had created (Brown in The Twentieth Century Way), instead of a role which other actors had played ad nauseum. Y'know, if South Coast Rep haven't cast their early 2011 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream yet, he would be perfect as Puck. But yeah, I'll stop now before I embarrass myself further.

Overall, Bell, Book and Candle was somewhat disappointing. Even without the nauseating patron perfumery or the acrophobia-inducing seating, I still don't think I would have enjoyed it fully. "Lacklustre" is probably a good word for how I feel, but then again...*shrugs*

Even though I wasn't really impressed with this production, I will definitely try another at The Colony, since every production will have its off-nights. And so will its audience, which was definitely me tonight.

Bell, Book and Candle runs through November 21st at The Colony Theatre in Burbank. More info and tickets here

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