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'Bell, Book and Candle' casts a spell at Laurel Mill Playhouse

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The Laurel Mill Playhouse on Main Street seems to be getting the hang of stormy opening nights. But even Director Larry Simmons couldn't design as fitting an aura for the first showing of John Van Bruten's classic romantic comedy, "Bell, Book, and Candle," as the natural downpour opening night Oct. 11. Or, could he?

A delightful story about witches, "Bell, Book, and Candle" debuted on Broadway in 1950. The play predates and influenced Sol Saks' well-known 1960s television show, "Bewitched." And mature audiences may remember Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak starring in the 1958 film release of "Bell, Book, and Candle."

When the show begins, it's Christmas Eve in Gillian Holroyd's apartment in mid-town Manhattan. Designed by Simmons, the set's antique decor appears slightly off kilter. A large Christmas wreath hangs over the mantle, odd hand-painted artwork adorns the walls and a small deity sculpture sits incongruently on a carved stand.

From the moment Pyewacket (played by Kendra Maurer's cat, Bones) twitches his whiskers at Gillian (played by Kat McKerrow), audience members should happily surrender their disbelief. After all, most people talk to their cats. And the wide-eyed and chic Gillian appears normal enough, at least at first glance.

But soon Gillian reveals that she is a witch, and quite powerful; she reminisces about conjuring a month of thunderstorms when angered by a rival during her college days.

The primary plot revolves around a love spell that Gillian will soon cast on book publisher Shep Henderson (played by Laurel resident Ken Krintz). 

Shep, who lives upstairs in a sublet apartment, visits Gillian for the first time to complain that Aunt Queenie (played by Maureen Rogers, of Laurel) keeps creeping into his apartment, and that odd smells and sounds come from Queenie's apartment. As their landlady, Gillian apologies and promises to speak to her aunt, and Shep leaves to celebrate Christmas Eve with his fiancé.

Enter Aunt Queenie, followed by Gillian's brother, Nicky (played by Jimmy Hennigan, also of Laurel). The three witches exchange gifts and practice a little magic. Gillian discovers from Aunt Queenie that Shep's fiancé is her old enemy and decides then and there that she wants him.

There's no scarcity of dramatic tension as Gillian casts a love spell to enchant Shep and starts a chain of unexpected events.

Sidney Redlitch (played by Simmons) is an author of magic books that Shep wants to sign. When Gillian summons Sidney to her apartment to meet Shep, Nicky agrees to collaborate on research for a book about witches. Fearing that Nicky will reveal too much about "real" witchcraft, Gillian casts another spell to make Shep lose interest in the book deal, and Nicky exacts revenge for her interference. But most disturbingly, Gillian realizes that she has fallen in love.

Simmons has assembled a seasoned cast to enact what he says is one of his favorite plays.

McKerrow delivers a thoughtful interpretation of Gillian. While the pace on opening night was a little sluggish, it gave viewers a chance to fully note and appreciate the more subtle nuances of her physical character work. And as the male lead, Krintz fits Shep Henderson visually, to a tee.

Playhouse veteran Rogers as Aunt Queenie shines as usual, both for her bubbling stage presence and her winsome costumes. Laurel Mill Playhouse newcomer Hennigan never misses a beat as Gillian's handsome brother, skillfully balancing his precocious character's narcissism with charm and genuine sibling love.

The costumes, overseen by McKerrow and Rogers, are lovely; the set, dressed by Simmons, his wife, Diana, and McKerrow works well in spite of minor blocking tangles; and all the actors are attractive.

There were some line problems on opening night that cut patches out of the story line, creating a sense of being told rather than seeing the story happen. And Krentz didn't quite convey the passion one would expect from a man bewitched.

But Simmons also delivers considerable energy in his portrayal of Redlitch, and Bones as Pyewacket admirably refrains from upstaging the rest of the cast, as familiars (and cats) are naturally prone to do.

"Bell, Book, and Candle" continues through Oct. 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays, Oct. 20 and 27, at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $15. Students 18 and under and seniors 65 and over pay $12. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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