Book and Lyrics by John Dempsey
Music by Dana P. Rowe
Based on the novel by John Updike and the Warner Bros. Motion Picture
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
It is hard to believe that it’s taken seven long years for Witches to hop on a transatlantic broom to favor American audiences with a U.S. premiere at Signature Theatre. The show was generally well-received in London – it ran for 15 months, albeit in two incarnations – not the typical Cameron Mackintosh blockbuster, but far from a one night disaster. As with Broadway, London shows couldn’t withstand the post-9/11 tourist drought (along with a foot and mouth disease media frenzy in Britain about the same time).
Remembering Dempsey and Rowe’s The Fix, a biting political satire that garnered ten Helen Hayes Award nominations for Signature back in 1999, expectations run high for their musical translation of John Updike’s erotic and comic novel of unleashed passions in puritanical New England.
Eric Shaeffer helmed the London production and ups the ante here with a racy, ribald, raunchy, and rollicking good ride. The catchy score works its wiles to Dempsey’s splendid book and lyrics. Best of all are the heartfelt songs, ‘Make Him Mine’, ‘I Wish I May’, and ‘Look at Me’ (which we might well hear performed outside the show), which feature our trio of lonely hearts club charter members, earth mother Alexandra (Emily Skinner), unstrung musician Jane (Christiane Noll) and word-and life-stifled Sukie (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan). Be prepared for some glorious harmonies from three of Broadway’s most talented songbirds. Of course, their acting is as remarkable as their voices.
Vulnerable and bored, the fledgling witches conjure up a nightmare in shining armor, well, a rakishly handsome lounge lizard decked out in red and black. This is not Ray Walston’s Mephistopholes. Marc Kudisch sniffs out his prey like the very randy wolf from Into the Woods, while demonstrating the stamina of the Energizer bunny. Darryl Van Horne blazes on the scene in a self-titled song, announced by thunder and lightening, brimming with sexual self-confidence and hell bent on making mischief. Ladies, be careful what you witch for, you just might get him (and he, you). He’s melded the zaniness of one of his best Broadway roles (Thoroughly Modern Millie) with the menace of another (Assassins) into a dangerously hilarious musical comedy masterpiece.
Van Horne seduces each of the witches in turn, spying into heart and mind, and scratching the itch found there. He plays Jane like a Stradivarius; tongue-tied Sukie blossoms from his talk therapy; and Alexandra embraces the goddess within, big, blonde and beautiful. Each has a character revealing duet with the devil and, what the hell, if half a loaf is better than none, maybe a third of a louse is better than being alone.
The whole town is shocked, shocked!, by the ménage à quatre. In backyards, over clothes lines and picket fences, ‘Dirty Laundry’ is aired as the housewives’ jaws flap in the breeze. Van Horne has a formidable adversary in Felicia Gabriel (Karlah Hamilton), civic leader, social arbiter and upholder of public and private morals. There’s trouble right here in Eastwick village, and Hamilton matches Kudisch stare for stare and jibe for jibe. Not an easy task. Felicia is portrayed as controlling and condescending, yet Hamilton avoids becoming an over-the-top cartoon of a shrew. The mix of emotions she conveys in the tour de force, ‘Evil’, is stunning. Shaeffer found the perfect foil for Kudisch when he cast Hamilton.
The sets are as smart and sexy as the characters, from Van Horne’s red and black leather den of iniquity to Alexandra’s living room to the soda fountain counter. The dark clouds in dusky sky are framed by a suspended line of white picket fences. An enormous moon cycles across the stage, beautifully lit to create the right mood for each scene. The costumes appropriately reflect casual and business wear with standout gowns for the witches’ Act I finale and raffish clothes for the dandy Darryl.
Harry A. Winter adds a forlorn humor to his role as Clyde, Felicia’s put-upon husband. The subplot of the young lovers, Erin Driscoll as Jennifer (Clyde and Felicia’s daughter) and James Gardiner as Michael (Alexandra’s son), doesn’t catch fire, unfortunately, and their duet, Something, is a fairly nondescript song. Unlike the Dirty Laundry number featuring the townswomen, the male chorus in Dance with the Devil doesn’t catch Kudisch’s fire. He’s a smooth operator trying to shape up the gang picked last for dodge ball in gym class.
This production definitely casts a spell with its charming pentagram (Kudisch, Skinner, Noll, Donovan, and Hamilton) of wickedly good performers. A little tinkering – a little more tweaking of the opening number here, a better duet for the young lovers there, and a different song for the ensemble in place of the Dirty Laundry reprise – and an A- show would be a solid A+. It is truly unfortunate that the show is here for such a short run.
The Witches of Eastwick plays through July 15 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA. For tickets, visit the website.
For our podcast with the witches of Eastwick, Emily Skinner, Christianne Noll and Jacqueline Piro Donovan, click here
For our podcast with Marc Kudisch, click here.