For a show that its author might have expected to become a favorite of theater companies around Halloween, the fantasy-comedy and witch fest "Bell, Book and Candle" is oddly Christmas-themed, even though the holiday is not central to the plot.
Vpstart Crow Productions pays homage to the December holiday with its current production of the play by having star performer McCall Noelle Farrell sing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" at the top of the show, perhaps in a nod to her operatic aspirations and talents rather than for any artistic purpose. But then, there aren't many good Halloween carols, are there?
This show has been rattling around local theaters for about half a century, but it still has the power to amuse with its lightweight love-story-with-magic plot that has a fetching witch, Gillian Holroyd (Farrell), falling in love with mortal Shepherd Henderson (Matthew Craig) in early 1950s Manhattan. Gillian's emotional tumult confounds her little group of witches and warlocks and puts her powers in jeopardy.
There are the usual plot turns: Witch casts spell on boy, witch gets boy, witch loses boy, witch gets boy back. The plot is complicated by the magical machinations of Nicky (Jay Tilley), Gillian's mischievous brother who would prefer that his sister avoid matrimony with a mortal.
Director Don Petersen has decided to loosen things up, adding a lounge singer (Pat McInerney) to the stage to provide the occasional musical interlude. He also opens up the "fourth wall" between actors and audience a bit, allowing the cast to acknowledge and talk directly to audience members on occasion. Some of this works quite nicely. The informality allows the cast to treat the audience as if we're all in on the joke together, and that helps build a warm glow about the effort.
Adding a lounge singer is much less successful, however. The idea isn't bad, but the execution is. McInerney tortures, rather than tickles, the ivories, and strangles, rather than sings, standards from the Great American Songbook -- familiar songs including "Witchcraft," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and, well, you get the idea.
Fortunately, an audience member took it upon herself at one point to go onstage and take over the singing duties last Saturday night, providing a few moments of blessed relief.
The rest of the production is much more successful, with an energetic cast moving through playwright John Van Druten's slender plot with alacrity. Farrell is a winsome witch, spicy and slightly eccentric, backed up by Tilley and Jan Boulet as their colorful Aunt Queenie.
Tilley, a powerhouse talent as a singer, has been stretching this past season, successfully moving into non-singing roles both dramatic and comedic, and the time for him to move on to bigger and better things cannot be far away. Here, he bursts onto the stage with each entrance, dominating each scene he's in, and displaying a playful comedic talent.
Utilizing an Old World accent and a series of beatific expressions, Boulet also seems to be enjoying herself as the slightly befuddled Queenie, but not more than we enjoy her.
In a smaller role, Bob Lavery provides a comic turn as alcohol-addled writer Sidney Redlitch.
All that's left now is to decide whose performance is more mechanical: the automaton stuffed cat playing Gillian's pet, Pyewacket, or Craig, as her mortal boyfriend, Shep. Craig charmlessly races through his lines with the wooden demeanor of a small town anchorman reporting a traffic accident, frequently punctuating his lines with a grim rat-a-tat-tat sound he mistakes for a chuckle. It's hard to see why a sensual witch would be attracted to this uptight guy, but maybe that's why they call it magic.
"Bell, Book and Candle" concludes this weekend, presented by Vpstart Crow Productions at the Cramer Center, 9008 Center St., Manassas. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday For tickets, go to www.tickets.com or call 800-955-5566. For group sales or more information, call 703-365-0240 or go to www.cramercenter.com.