By Ian Rigg
Handbag, Handbag, you’ve got us in your spell,
Handbag, Handbag, you know your craft so well
Hell in a Handbag Productions is known for its irreverent romps, and that uproarious spirit remains thriving in its 15th anniversary season, with the world premiere of Bewildered.
A spoof and reimagining of the classic TV series Bewitched, the original musical is told through the binoculars of Gladys Kravitz, the lovable voyeur next-door to a household of witches. Bewildered sends up the old sitcom tropes, standing as a little love letter to their trite comforts and imploring audiences to be who they were always meant to be.
Aaron Benham (music and lyrics) and Ron Weaver (book and lyrics) concoct a clever, kooky caper with a cache of earworm numbers. And director and choreographer Brigitte Ditmars tosses her own flair on top of it, bringing the magic spells to life by way of the “Magic Stage Hand” ensemble.
The magic is additionally brought to life by behind-the-scenes warlocks. Costume Designer Rachel Sypniewski sets the scene with spot-on period costumes but also works wonders with sequins and metallic fabrics (stay tuned for Endora’s Act II digs). Wig Designer Keith Ryan casts a spell over some deliciously out-there 70s ‘dos. And Scenic Designer Roger Wykes smartly transfigures the set on turntables.
And the cast casts that greatest spell of all: life.
Elizabeth Morgan proves a practically perfect Samantha, nose-twitching charm and all. David Cerda glides onstage as her overbearing mother Endora, and is clearly having a ball doing it; she’s a real witch indeed. Scott Sawa and AJ Wright do well in the twin role of Darrin, capitalizing on the original show’s recast actors and putting a fun and flamboyant twist on it. Ed Jones might garner the most laughs-per-minute as Uncle Arthur (audiences may find themselves humming “Let Yourself Be A Little Gay”). Matt Miles brings a working class snarl and sympathy to grouchy husband Abner Kravitz. And Robert Williams is simply riotous in the dual role of precocious daughter Tabitha, and the lascivious lush, Louise (the quick change is deployed to great comedic effect)
While the show offers side-splitting silliness in spades, it also has a serious heart. That’s all because of Caitlin Jackson. One wonders if Bewildered was designed as a showpiece for her, and every note of it would be deserved. She is utterly incredible as Gladys. Jackson crafts a pitch-perfect character voice of the embattled 60s housewife, teams it with comedic timing that can’t be taught and pulls out a powerful belt. But she bases it all in a wide-eyed sincerity that brings the parody its gravitational center of love. She breaks audience’s hearts singing about not being the “Leading Lady,” but in her triumphs, it’s quite evident that she has been all along.
Through its smartly farcical antics, remind us that there’s nothing wrong with being who you really are. It’s a message as necessary now as it ever was. For outside the theatre doors, we may be bewitched and bothered, but within the magical realm of Hell in a Handbag, we are happily Bewildered.
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents “Bewildered” through November 11 at Stage 773, 1224 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.