'The Witches' of Shirlington
Retooled Musical Gets Another Chance To Fly at Signature

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Devil wears T-shirts. He's sweating through one of them, in fact, as he works it, works it in a rehearsal room at Signature Theatre, trying to perfect the big finish of his jazzy opening number. The dark lord's corporeal form on this occasion is the actor Marc Kudisch -- on whose broad shoulders the fortunes of a new, revamped stage version of "The Witches of Eastwick" are in large measure now riding.

"Thank you -- it took a huge leap today," choreographer Karma Camp says to Kudisch and a dozen ensemble members who've been practicing the jerky moves Camp has taught them, to create the illusion the townspeople are under the spell of Darryl van Horne, the satanic figure Kudisch plays. "I know at least now that he's in control," she adds. "That's great."

On this warm day of rehearsal in May, the company is midway through the weeks-long job of getting onto its feet this great big musical comedy, based on a playfully spiteful novel by John Updike that was made into a 1987 film with Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher. The process is a crucial step in the show's unusually circuitous route to its American premiere this week at Signature -- a path that began seven years ago with a London production directed, like the Shirlington incarnation, by Signature's own Eric Schaeffer.

For Schaeffer; for the show's original producer, Cameron Mackintosh; for the musical's creators, Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey, this second life is huge, because the American debut may determine how big a future "The Witches of Eastwick" can have. When it opened in London in 2000, the musical received a mixed critical reception; while some reviews applauded the musical's buoyant spirit, others complained that the stage adaptation had too little of the novel's satirical kick.

Although "Witches" ran in London for about 750 performances, it never really caught on -- certainly not in the way other Mackintosh mega-hits have, from "Cats" to "Miss Saigon." And while the musical has subsequently been staged in Melbourne and Moscow and Prague, it remains an unknown quantity in the States: a Broadway-style musical with no Broadway exposure.

Will "Witches" finally get to punch its New York ticket? The answer may come in Shirlington, via the impressive lineup of actors Schaeffer has assembled. Around Kudisch's wily, sexually manipulative Darryl, the director has cast three accomplished Broadway pros, Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, to play the suburban divorcees who work their hocus-pocus on a buttoned-down Rhode Island enclave.

"It obviously wasn't going to come over as the latest hit from London," Mackintosh is saying by phone from Britain. "Because it didn't become the thing of the season, interest sort of drifted away. I thought the best way for it to come over would be for the material to be discovered, again."

Ordinarily, directors don't get second chances; with a revised production, the lay of the land often tilts toward a new shepherd. But Mackintosh, who retains the rights, says he thought Schaeffer had earned the chance to take another crack at it, that the shortcomings were not necessarily directorial. "I think we never got the right cast," he explains, referring to the original selection of Ian McShane as Darryl. (Lucie Arnaz, Maria Friedman and Joanna Riding were the witches.) And he also thought the intimate Signature space might be the appropriate departure for a show conceived for the Drury Lane Theatre, a vast and venerated West End playhouse.

Schaeffer, for his part, says he, too, had misgivings, about the London show's campy tone and the scale of what ended up onstage. "It's such an American show, I don't know that they totally got it," he says of British theatergoers and the largely British cast. "What happened was that it became much broader than we had ever thought of it. It didn't have the edge to it and the bite it could have -- that it did have, in the rehearsal room."

The hope is the musical's teeth show more skillfully with the cuts, additions and rewrites by composer Rowe and by lyricist and librettist Dempsey. "I actually think it's the best thing that this didn't happen right away," Dempsey says. He's continued to tinker all through Signature's rehearsal period and estimates that since London, 30 percent of the show has been changed.

"When we first did the first draft of it, it had a smart-alecky tone to it," adds Dempsey, who also collaborated with Rowe on "The Fix," a raucous musical satire of politics that Schaeffer directed at Signature in 1998; it was that production that persuaded Mackintosh to give the director "Witches."

Dempsey describes the effect of the early "Witches" draft as a sort of "dour Neil Simon. But as it got developed, it got a little more Anglicized and it got sillier. And we lost the tone. It got less Updike and more Benny Hill."

"Witches" charts the seduction of the three stifled Eastwick women -- a sculptor, a music teacher and a reporter -- by Darryl, whose interventions unleash their imaginations as well as their libidos. It's a technically demanding show in any space because, among other things, the actors portraying Darryl and his enchanted women have to be suspended on wires and soar above the stage.

"Getting to fly, I've always wanted to do that," says Noll, who did a long stint on Broadway in "Jekyll and Hyde." Sitting with her during a lunch break in the Signature lobby, the gifted Skinner (whose credits range from "Side Show" on Broadway to Agnes Gooch in the Kennedy Center's "Mame") and Piro Donovan (an award-winning Lizzie Curry in Signature's "110 in the Shade") shudder a bit at the prospect of aerial work.

"What I liked about this is that with so many films being musicalized, this was one with a difference -- a fable, but for adults," Skinner says. "It's 'Wicked' times three."

Dempsey and Rowe had made some alterations for the musical's staging in Australia, and the restructuring continued for Signature. The narrative has been reshaped so that Darryl and the women make earlier, more dynamic entrances.

For instance, Dempsey says, the introductory number, "Eastwick Knows," has been absorbed into another song because the original, initial focus had been on the town, rather than the stars.

Even the actors have gotten into the act. A song late in the show for Darryl, "Who's the Man?," was dropped -- at Kudisch's suggestion. He thought that at a crucial juncture, it didn't so much stop the show as the story. "I said, 'You've got to cut it,' " he recalls. So the writers gave him a new piece of music designed to flow more effectively into the accompanying scene.

It has escaped no one's notice that Kudisch, who portrayed van Gogh in Signature's 2004 premiere of Michael John LaChiusa's "The Highest Yellow," has of late been making a specialty of temptation. In the Broadway revival last fall of "The Apple Tree," which sets to music the story of Adam and Eve, he was cast as the Serpent. "I wanted to do this," he says. "Who doesn't want to be the Devil?"

The issue now is how thoroughly the renovated "Witches of Eastwick" can tempt ticket buyers. In Signature's inaugural season in its new headquarters, a successful retooling of this ambitious musical would be both a vindication for its authors and a major coup for the company.

"I believe there's no such thing as the right route for a musical," says Mackintosh, who plans to be at Signature for the new "Witches." "I'm very fond of John and Dana, and I think it's underrated material that deserves a wider audience. If it only has lots of regional productions, I will be thrilled. Anything else is a bonus."

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