'Witches of Eastwick' Spells Wicked Fun
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
In the category of Best Featured Performance by a Pelvis, the prize this year goes by acclamation to the midsection of Marc Kudisch, which undulates to a fare-thee-well in Signature Theatre's carnally enjoyable "Witches of Eastwick."
Kudisch plays salacious Darryl Van Horne, a.k.a. lord of the underworld, in this musical adaptation of a John Updike novel about three sexually stifled New England women whose passionate natures are reignited by a handsome devil. An independent analysis of Kudisch's DNA finds that his suitability for the role is encoded on his 10th chromosome (that's the one, apparently, carrying the gene for showstoppers).
In other words, the guy's irresistible, and one of several reasons that this guilty pleasure of a musical makes a crowd-pleasing bow in its American premiere in Shirlington. Another reason is the sprightly array of songs with which composer Dana P. Rowe and lyricist John Dempsey enliven the proceedings. And three more are Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, portraying a trio of Rhode Island women bewildered, bothered and eventually bewitched by Darryl.
With Eric Schaeffer at the helm, "The Witches of Eastwick" began life in 2000 as a musical in London, and although it garnered some respectable reviews, the consensus pegged it a disappointment and an American transfer never happened. Seven years later, the creative team, directed again by Schaeffer, decided to take another crack. Rowe and Dempsey have cut some songs and added new ones. From all reports, the campiness infecting the London production has been toned down, too.
What emerges at Signature is a conventional musical comedy that's great fun even if it isn't great art. It might be unfair to burden the show with any responsibility for advancing the form, because that simply is not what its authors aspire to here. The broadly ironic premise -- three modern working women with all the obvious feminist credentials, turned into sex objects -- offers a dandy framework for the light musical lampooning of life among the gossipy, neighbor-gazing, suburban upper-middle class.
The musical adaptation has way more kick than the wispy 1987 film that misused the gifts of Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher. Dempsey, who also wrote the show's libretto, and Rowe turn Updike's novel into a vehicle for that staple of the American musical: the sexy outsider who stimulates the G spot of Middle America. The formula has been effective in a range of classic shows, from "Bye Bye Birdie" to "110 in the Shade" and, perhaps most famously, "The Music Man."
"Witches" is a raunchier variation -- imagine "Seventy-Six Trombones" performed in Victoria's Secret negligee. The piece is more risque than profane, but even so, parents vigilant about the purity of young eyes and ears might want to find a babysitter for the evening.
The musical's links to tradition extend to a thin subplot involving teenage lovers (played sweetly by Erin Driscoll and James Gardiner). On hand, too, is the requisite villain -- in this case, town battle-ax Felicia, a killjoy who has driven her husband (Harry A. Winter) to drink and who takes an instant dislike to Darryl, a loudmouth with a swagger who has moved to Eastwick from that quintessential den of iniquity, New York.
Felicia is embodied here with nostril-flaring ripeness by Karlah Hamilton. It's one of those roles that would be hard to oversell, and Hamilton proves a terrific saleswoman. (A funny, table-turning conceit is that busybody Felicia is also an enviro-regulatory bully; Darryl's rehabbing of his Eastwick manse has upset the nesting habitat of the egrets, the only local residents to whom Felicia defers.)
Kudisch, a Broadway vet last seen here as the flamboyantly tormented Vincent van Gogh in Michael John LaChiusa's "The Highest Yellow," sets up the story in a lively entrance number ("Darryl Van Horne"). Darryl has come to sate his lusts and crank up everyone else's, especially those of three vulnerable, man-hungry pariahs: music teacher Jane (Noll), news reporter Sukie (Piro Donovan) and sculptor Alexandra (Skinner).
In successive songs, Darryl seduces each of the women: "Whatever Lola Wants" times three, sort of. Darryl tailors his come-ons to suggest empathy for each of their blocked artistic temperaments -- metaphors, of course, for sexual frustration. It's a function that Kudisch, stripping to the hirsute waist, takes to as can only a dyed-in-the-wool exhibitionist.
The superb Skinner is accorded what could be the toughest sequence, because it alludes to something deeply personal: a woman's weight. It's handled with aplomb by the actress, who is also in lovely voice. Piro Donovan winningly invests Sukie with the girlish goofiness of one who dissolves in giggles at a man's mere touch. Noll, portraying the dishiest of the three, gives Jane a nifty, naughty twinkle that hints at kinkier appetites.
In "Witches," holding sexual sway is indivisible from supernatural power, and the women's growing mastery of both is demonstrated ebulliently just before intermission, when at last they take to the skies. It's on the technical level that Schaeffer's production still has kinks to work out, for until the actresses are airborne -- there's a nice surprise in how they navigate the airspace in Signature's larger theater, the Max -- the mechanics look and feel clunky. (Amplification-system problems must be worked on, too.)
The difficulty of making seamless magic in such close quarters is easy to understand. Would it not be better if, in some artful way, everyone acknowledged the presence of the cables, rather than having us watch them hang there pre-flight, waiting to be hooked up? (Later, it seems, an opportunity is missed for what might be a funny sight gag with miniature cables, when the witches torment a puppet-size effigy of Darryl.)
The show does appear a bit constrained in the Signature space. Although Karma Camp choreographs a couple of group numbers with vigor -- particularly the cheesily effervescent "Dirty Laundry" -- there are too many stationary moments when everyone is posed in little bunches.
Set designer Walt Spangler has created a skyscape with a gigantic moon and black clouds that lurch tentatively across the stage. More successful are Bruce Coughlin's buoyant orchestrations and Alejo Vietti's vivid costumes. Here's a designer who knows how to invest a garment with personality.
Speaking of personality, Schaeffer imbues his "Witches" with it. Luckily for him as well as for us, the evening's star oozes it, too. Devil though he may be, Kudisch here is heaven-sent.
Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer answers six questions about "The Witches of Eastwick":
What attracted you to the London "Witches" production?
I was working with Cameron Mackintosh on "Putting it Together" on Broadway and he asked me to direct the show. The premiere of the show as at the Drury Lane Theatre in the West End.
What five adjectives would you use to describe the production?
Sexy, witty, smart, dangerous and a wild roller coaster ride!
Where did you look for inspiration in directing?
To the characters on the page. It's always best to tell their story and figuring out the best way to do it is not always easy in a musical. This one is quite fun because there are no rules and if there were Darryl van Horne would break every one of them!
Please describe the production's set. What were the ideas behind the design?
The set is really terrific. Walt Spangler and I sat down to look at the show at a whole different way from the original London production. The set is dark and sexy and very romantic. Lots of black in the clouds and the mirrored floor and we have an 18-foot diameter moon that plays an important role in every scene. It really transports the audience to Eastwick.
What are some changes you've made from the London production?
We've added three new songs and did some restructuring. There were so many great things about the London production that you wouldn't want to touch. I think the work we have done for this American premiere makes the show what we all dreamed it could be.
At the 20th anniversary of the film's release, can audiences expect any on-stage nods to the film?
No on stage nods to the film -- we've really created our own little, well actually not so little, show here. It's its own beast but it's one hell of a sexy beast!