BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE First produced in 1958, writer John Van Druten's creaky comedy extols the notion that women may lay claim to marital bliss only when they've relinquished their power. A forerunner of the TV sitcom Bewitched, the plot revolves around a young witch named Gillian (Willow Geer), who concocts a wildly successful spell to corral the adoration of her attractive upstairs tenant, Shep (Michael A. Newcomber). Gillian's subsequent predicament is twofold: First, she cannot allow her lover to learn that she's a witch; second, she must not actually fall in love with the guy, or else she will lose her magic. With its fantastical premise, stale humor and contrived plot, the material would present a challenge to even the most adept and charismatic performers (Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer starred in the successful stage original). Under Richard Israel's direction, Geer — decked out by costume designer Sharon McGunigle in high heels and an unflattering period dress — appears stiff and uncomfortable throughout Act I, while Newcomber's plodding persona, though persuasive, exudes little charm. The duo fares better in Act 2, when Geer's character, having something to conceal, is presented with a real conflict. The flames of passion between them never flare, however, adding another deficit to the production. William Bradley does a respectable turn as Gillian's mischief-making brother, while both Mary Jo Catlett as her dippy aunt and Benton Jennings as a nosy writer rely on comedic shtick. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 21. (818) 558-7000. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  FROM HOBOKEN TO HOLLYWOOD: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK The big-band show in this musical (book by Luca Ellis, Paul Litteral and Jeremy Aldridge) is staged as a behind-the-scenes live taping of a late-1960s television special with a star identified in the program only as “The Crooner.” James Thompson's authentic set comes with sound booth, TV cameras, microphones, lighting, a spacious bandstand and stage, overhead video screens and neon applause signs. Adding to the realism is lots of backstage banter, numerous gaffes, miscues and retakes, and some well-placed comedy and drama played out between director Dwight (Al Bernstein) and his overworked and underappreciated assistant, Andy (Pat Towne). There are also cheeky commercial breaks for Shmimex watches and the all-new Ford Mustang. Musical director Litteral and his nattily dressed 12-member band (Jessica Olson's costumes are entirely on cue) combine into a flawless, robust performance redolent of the best of Ellington or Basie. Luca Ellis is a knockout from start to finish as the Crooner. How good is he? If you close your eyes while he sings familiar tunes such as “That's Life,” “New York, New York” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” you'd swear the Chairman himself had come back for one last encore. As masterfully woven together by director Aldridge, the material is so good that the applause signs aren't really needed. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 15. (310) 392-7327. (Lovell Estell III)

LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS Neil Simon's 1969 play (among his earliest) evokes the permissive decade of “free love.” Barney Cashman (John Combs) is a paunchy, balding and married nebbish who wants to join the sexual revolution before it's too late. A gentle, inept soul, he attempts three seductions: a sexpot who likes cigarettes, whiskey and other women's husbands; a delightfully daffy wannabe actress whom he discovers is a nutcase; and his wife's best friend, who turns out to be a depressed nihilist. The play hasn't been staged in L.A. for almost 20 years, perhaps because of its dated feel, drawn-out second act and lack of satisfying payoff. This production by the West Coast Jewish Theatre is solid in its direction and staging (by Howard Teichman) and its performances. Playing potential mistress No. 1, Maria Spassoff is seductive and suave, channeling the alluring sexuality of Streisand in her heyday. She combats Barney's awkward fumblings with dry sarcasm, until her enthusiastic determination is eventually quenched. As the goofy hippie-chick, Ashley Platz brings a zany charm to her role. Tracy Winters also does well with the uptight and melancholic housewife who, in a smidgen of nihilistic humor, confesses she's seeing a therapist until she's well enough to drive off a bridge and end it all. Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 21, (323) 821-2449 or (Pauline Adamek)

THE OHIO 4TH This backstage farce by Daniel Schoenman is set in a theater in Marion, Ohio, on the opening night of a play based on the life of former president Warren G. Harding. (I'd consider this far-fetched if I hadn't once seen a musical based on the life of Vice President Alben Barkley.) When the star (Michael Butler Murray) drops dead onstage, all hell breaks loose. For reasons never entirely clear, producer Emily (Cori Clark Nelson) decides they must conceal the death — and the corpse. She enlists the aid of director Josh (John Lavelle), the head of the local cultural center (Weston I. Nathanson) and the actors to join the cover-up and fend off the visiting VIP, Sen. Will Peck (Murray). Schoenman's script is so slapdash that it sometimes seems the actors are making it up as they go along, but he provides some funny situations, and director Annie McVey makes the most of them, assisted by a nimble cast. Lavelle is a master of low-key but hilarious reactions, and Kim Swennen shines as both an affected actress and the senator's ambitious trouble-shooter. Chloe Peterson and Allen Cutler neatly round out the cast. Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Nov. 21. (323) 960-7714 or Produced by the Inkwell Theatre. (Neal Weaver)


TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD A 1982 Taper commission, playwright Christopher Hampton's quasi–Stoppard-esque marriage of literary history and City of Nets–like biographical melodrama is at best a shotgun wedding. Hampton's subject is Hollywood during the Nazi era, when Hitler's rise to power in Germany doused the fecund cultural cauldron of the Weimar Republic and sent its greatest creative minds running for cover to the West's dwindling, fascist-free zones — including the place least equipped to comprehend the prize catch of refugee riches suddenly residing in its precincts. The play's most brittle conceit is its resurrection of playwright-novelist Ödön von Horvàth (Gregory Gifford Giles) from his real-life freak death in Paris in 1938. The Hungarian-born, German-language writer serves as a kitsch-loving ironic lens through which Hampton observes the tragic absurdity of such eminent artists as Bertolt Brecht (Daniel Zacapa) and Heinrich Mann (Walter Beery) eking out an existence in the B-movie script mills of the lowest of the lowbrow studio establishment. But the device also creates the dramatic bind of having the wraithlike protagonist always hovering but never quite meshing with the piece's most poignant material — namely, the difficult relationship between the principled but impoverished Mann, his mentally unstable wife, Nelly (Ursula Brooks), and Mann's rich and famous, albeit less deserving, novelist brother, Thomas Mann (Kent Minault). Despite director Michael Peretzian's sleek production — which includes Tom Buderwitz's handsome swimming pool set, Elizabeth Harper's fine lights and incisive performances by Beery and Minault — Hampton's postmodernist stab at an L.A. Travesties never quite gels. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 10. (310) 477-2055 or (Bill Raden)

TEA AT FIVE In Matthew Lombardo's one-woman play, directed by Jenny Sullivan, Stephanie Zimbalist dons the mannish slacks of legendary actress Katharine Hepburn and shares a few stories from her life and career. In Act 1, the actress is 31 and suffering a career slump. Several movie flops in a row have earned her the deadly moniker “Box Office Poison.” We hear her haranguing her agent via telephone to get her cast as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind and fending off lavish attention from suitor Howard Hughes. Her monologues are nicely broken up by telephone calls and unseen visitors at the door of her father's well-appointed Connecticut cottage (set design by Neil Prince). For Act 2, Zimbalist reemerges as an aging Hepburn, clearly suffering the onset of “essential tremor,” which plagued her final years. Mercifully, Zimbalist never overplays the distinctive vocal mannerisms Hepburn was known for. Eventually a portrait emerges of a gutsy, scrappy, single-minded and indefatigable woman who fought at every turn to preserve her independence within a spirit-crushing studio system. Flashes of self-deprecating humor and moments of vulnerability just endear us further to this cinematic icon. For almost the entire play, any mention of her clandestine 27-year love affair with Spencer Tracy is conspicuously absent. It's only within the last 15 minutes of this short play (two 45-minute acts) that the romance with her frequent leading man is briefly and almost begrudgingly discussed. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Wed.-Sat., 8pm, Sun., 4pm.; thru Nov. 14. (818) 955-8101. (Pauline Adamek)

WHEN GARBO TALKS! Many would say that by ending her career in her prime and going into seclusion, Greta Garbo wasted both her talent and the opportunities that lay before her. The same could be said of this musical about the famously misanthropic star, crafted by veterans of popular music: Buddy Kaye (book and lyrics) and Mort Garson (music). In it, we are introduced to Garbo (Jessica Burrows) as an ingénue in Sweden, auditioning for renowned director Mauritz Stiller (Michael Stone Forrest). From these early days we are transported vigorously through her career, including her move to Hollywood, her battles with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Matthew Henderson) and her romance with screen idol John Gilbert (Christopher Carothers). Garson's music along the way is sweet, but in the grocery store–brand-vanilla–ice cream kind of way. The late Kaye's lyrical talent is evident, too, but his book (and son Richard D. Kaye's additions to it) is filled with dialogue so on-the-nose that it makes soap operas seem subtle. Director Jules Aaron keeps the pace brisk yet fails to tap less obvious but more interesting sources of conflict buried in the text, such as Stiller's coldness to Garbo's romantic advances because of his homosexuality, or Garbo's own bisexuality. Instead, wince-inducing lines such as, “How can you avoid big battles when you have big dreams?” sneak through, and Mayer twirls his mustache one more time before tying Garbo to the railroad tracks. Perhaps like the real-life recluse, this musical might have opted for the subtle clarity of silence more often. International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 7. (562) 436-4610. (Mayank Keshaviah)


WICKED LIT Live from Altadena's Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery come three classic tales reworked for their settings — a graveyard, a chapel and a catacomb — made creepy with mood lighting. H.P. Lovecraft's “The Unnamable,” adapted and directed by Jeff G. Rack, has the audience literally chasing after Michael Prichard and John T. Cogan as they flee from a black-magic beast and the toothless ghost of Prichard's grandmother. Sound effects from speakers hidden in the trees and Prichard's and Cogan's hoary performances are a nifty jolt. Charles Dickens' “The Chimes,” condensed by Jonathan Josephson, is a capitalist spook story in which two goblins (Eric Harris and LizAnne Keigley) warn a churchkeeper (Richard Large) not to estrange his daughter (Katie Pelensky) for marrying a poor philosopher (Michael Perl). The story is a lightweight A Christmas Carol redo, but director Paul Millet adds tension by plunging the audience into darkness and making his goblins truly ghoulish. Millet and Josephson trade duties for Edgar Allan Poe's “The Cask of Amontillado,” but though its underground halls of the mausoleum are the best location of the night (and the guide wickedly enjoys leading the guests down dead ends), stiff performances make it feel DOA. An added plot twist that gives Montresor (Brian David Pope) a reason for bricking up his friend Fortunato (William Joseph Hill) in the tombs strips Poe's yarn of its most chilling raison d'être: that people do unjustifiably bad things, and we have the pleasure of bearing witness. Mountain View Mausoleum, 2300 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 30. (818) 242-7910, (Amy Nicholson)

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