'Witches of Eastwick' Spells Wicked Fun

Give the devil his due: Marc Kudisch is a sexy showstopper in the musical  --  based on John Updike's novel and '80s film version  --  making its U.S. premiere at Signature.
Give the devil his due: Marc Kudisch is a sexy showstopper in the musical -- based on John Updike's novel and '80s film version -- making its U.S. premiere at Signature. (By Scott Suchman -- Signature Theatre)
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.

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