BWW Reviews: Hartford Stage's BELL, BOOK & CANDLE is Magical through April 29

By: Apr. 10, 2012

Bell, Book & Candle
by John Van Druten
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
at Hartford Stage through April 29

The better part of a year ago, Hartford Stage announced Darko Tresnjak as the company’s fifth Artistic Director.  As the 2011-2012 season was programmed by Hartford Stage’s outgoing Artistic Director Michael Wilson, we have had to wait until April of this year to actually see Tresnjak’s first production.  It was a long time to hold our breath and see what Hartford audiences could expect in the coming years.  We can all breathe easily. 

Like Wilson’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 1998 heralded an exciting new talent in the region, Tresnjak’s Bell, Book & Candle is smart, funny, and entirely encouraging.  This 1950s Broadway chestnut by John Van Druten is a welcome breath of fresh air instead of a musty revival.  Whereas most Connecticut regionals would leave mid-20th century romantic comedies lying fallow, Tresnjak finds a fun springtime diversion for Hartford audiences after a month-long run at New Haven’s Long Wharf.

Bell, Book & Candle is a predecessor of sorts to 1960s TV classics I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched.  In the play, Gillian, portrayed by the bewitching Kate MacLuggage, is an undercover sorceress living in a space-age bachelorette pad.  Visited by her relatives and fellow witches, Aunt Queenie and brother Nicky, Gillian uses her formidable powers for mischief instead of evil.  When she sets her sights on her handsome tenant Shepherd, played by Robert Eli, she uses her witchcraft to foil his engagement to an old college rival.

Alexander Dodge’s swanky Manhattan apartment and environs takes this season’s set design for Boeing Boeing one fabulous step further.  With a suspended fireplace, conversation pit and Sputnik-like light fixture, half the audience was ready to move in and pour themselves a martini.  With Egyptian cats dotting the set, Dodge winks at the era’s dedication to Exotica culture.  Sound designer Lindsay Jones further immerses us into the urban ultra-lounge atmosphere with vibraphone-laced tunes by Martin Denny and Peruvian wildcat Yma Sumac.  With similarly magical lighting by Matthew Richards, enhancing moments of spell-casting, and pitch-perfect 50s couture by Fabio Toblini, the overall look of the production feels like an Esquivel song come to life.

As Gillian, Kate MacCluggage is a stunner.  With cool, feline movements in a cat-suit, she is sly and wily.  As she slowly falls in love with the mouse with which she is toying, you can see MacCluggage’s Gillian struggle and melt.  It is one of the freshest performances this year.  Robert Eli makes for a dashing and occasionally befuddled romantic foil.  In a role played on film by Jimmy Stewart, Eli toughens up the character a bit and offers a challenge worthy of Gillian.

The casting of the roles of Aunt Queenie (Ruth Williamson) and Nicky (Michael Keyloun) are a little less spot-on and represent the only shortcomings of Tresnjak’s inaugural production.  Ruth Williamson certainly looks the part of a meddling aunt, but the role is clearly designed to be a scene-stealer and Williamson never quite manages to get the audience rolling in the aisles. 

Michael Keyloun’s Nicky seems a bit too louche and fey, literally throwing himself at Shepherd in one scene.  The playbill dramaturgy indicates that there is an undercurrent of closeted homosexuality in the play, perhaps equating the undercover magical folks with gays.  This, however, does not obviate itself in the script, in fact Nicky refers to his interest in a woman repeatedly.  It ends up making Nicky something he isn’t – dishonest. 

Despite these minor misgivings, the play is tremendously magical.  With a spinning carpet that acts as a human-sized Lazy Susan and snow machines ringing the playing space, one gets that sense the Tresnjak is having a great deal of fun opening the play, and his artistry, up for Hartford Stage’s audience.  If Bell, Book & Candle is any indicator, Darko Tresnjak will be a most welcome addition to our community.

Photo of Kate MacCluggage by T. Charles Erickson

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